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Tonga transport minister resigns over ferry loss

TONGA'S minister of transport resigned today, six days after a state-owned ferry sank, leaving 93 people missing in one of the South Pacific nation's biggest tragedies.

Minister Paul Karalus announced his resignation as the government appointed a royal commission of inquiry into the sinking, amid claims the 36-year-old ferry Princess Ashika was unseaworthy and should not have been sailing.

Karalus said as his ministry is the subject of the commission, he had to resign to ensure there was "a full, complete and transparent" investigation into the Aug. 5 sinking.

Because the commission reports to Tonga's Privy Council, which Karalus serves on as a Cabinet minister, he said "from a legal perspective" he had to step aside. Karalus was appointed to his position as transport minister by the nation's King, George Tupou V.

Karalus told reporters he expects to be questioned in the inquiry.

"We carried out our duties with due care and diligence," he said in a statement.

No survivors have been found since an initial rescue of 54 people and the recovery of two bodies after the ferry sank.

Karalus and Tongan Prime Minister Feleti Sevele have consistently said the vessel was fully seaworthy, fully certified for service and met all international maritime standards.

The cause of the disaster is not yet known. Survivors described the ferry as rocking violently from side to side and waves breaking into the lower deck before it went under, though officials said weather conditions were mild.

On Monday, the ship's captain, Maka Tuputupu, blamed the sinking on rusted loading ramps that allowed water into the boat, and said the Tongan government should take responsibility because it knew there were problems with the ship.

"The government knows everything about the boat; they know because they surveyed the boat," he said.

Tuputupu said waves were only three feet (one meter) high when the ferry foundered, adding he was the last person off - escaping through a hatch as the ship sank.

But Sevele rejected Tuputupu's claims, placing responsibility for the tragedy on the captain. "(If) I was a captain worth my salt and if I knew that the vessel wasn't seaworthy, I would not sail it," he said.

It is the captain who makes the final decision to head out to sea, not the state-owned shipping company, Shipping Corp. of Polynesia, Sevele said.

Bad weather continued today in the search area, about 54 miles (86 kilometers) from the capital, Nuku'alofa, suspending the search by navy divers for the sunken ferry for a second day.


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