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August 14, 2009

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Tonga ferry victims may not be recovered

TONGA may have to abandon attempts to recover the bodies of 93 people believed trapped inside a ferry that sank off the coast of the South Pacific country because of the expense of the operation, officials said yesterday.

Police said they had confirmed the identities of 37 of those missing and presumed dead after the ship capsized on August 5, but some of the rest may never be known because the passenger manifest conflicts with other evidence about who was on board.

Searchers using a remote diving device found a hulk they believe to be the Princess Ashika at a depth of 110 meters - at least 50 meters below the level to which New Zealand and Australian navy divers at the scene can descend.

The deep-sea equipment needed to access the hulk to search for bodies and clues to the tragedy is only available overseas, and such an operation would cost millions of dollars.

Lopeti Senituli, spokesman for Prime Minister Feleti Sevele, said no decision would be made on whether to call in deep dive experts until more survey work is done at the site.

The tragedy has sparked accusations that the government allowed the ferry to operate despite being unseaworthy.

Officials say 149 people were aboard when the ship went down 85 kilometers northeast of the capital, Nuku'alofa. In the first hours after the sinking, 54 survivors were rescued and two bodies recovered. No survivors or bodies have been found since.


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