Relatives and friends place candles and flowers for missing people from a ferry disaster is displayed at the port in Libreville on Mar 13, 2023. (PHOTO / AFP)
LIBREVILLE — Search teams in Gabon have recovered the dead bodies of 15 passengers of a ferry that sank off the West African country's coast last week, bringing the provisional death toll up to 21, the coordinator of rescue operations said on Tuesday.
The Esther Miracle ferry was carrying 161 passengers from Libreville to Port-Gentil when it sank close to the coastal village of Nyonie on March 9.
A Reuters reporter at Libreville port saw the bodies offloaded from a boat in body bags. Some relatives rushed over in an attempt to identify them before police blocked access
Authorities confirmed six deaths on Monday and were still searching for 31 missing people. Air force planes and diving teams had been sent to conduct daily search operations.
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Head of rescue operations Bekale Meyong said on state television on Tuesday that 124 people had been rescued and 21 confirmed dead after 15 more bodies were fished from the shipwreck.
Ambulances have taken the bodies to mortuaries and search operations are ongoing, he added.
The government has not yet commented on the causes of the incident.
A Reuters reporter at Libreville port saw the bodies offloaded from a boat in body bags. Some relatives rushed over in an attempt to identify them before police blocked access.
"At least now we can organise their funerals," said Esther Mvou, who managed to recognise two family members among the dead. One of them was Mvou's sister, whom she identified from the black tank top she was wearing when she left Libreville.
Hundreds of people have been holding vigils at Libreville port since the ferry sunk in a show of solidarity towards distraught relatives waiting for news.
They sleep out in the open and in tents provided by civil society groups and authorities.
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Critics accuse the government of being slow to respond and of downplaying the scale of the incident, saying the ship was carrying more passengers than disclosed.
Ferries are often overloaded in Gabon, and there are unconfirmed reports the ship was weighed down with cars, livestock and other merchandise.
Government spokesman Yves Fernand Manfoumbi told Reuters via telephone that he had no information or comment on the allegations.