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70 dead as boats capsize in Congo

Two boat capsizes in one weekend on Congo's vast rivers have left 70 people dead and 200 others feared dead in unrelated incidents that were both characterised by heavily loaded boats operated with few safety measures.

Early on Saturday, a boat on a river in north-west Equateur Province hit a rock and capsized, provincial spokeswoman Ebale Engumba said. She said more than 70 people are believed dead among 100 estimated passengers. She said officials are investigating why the boat was travelling through the darkness without a light.

Another boat tipping in Kasai Occidental Province left 200 people feared dead after the boat loaded with passengers and fuel drums caught fire and capsized in southern Congo, a survivor said. Another survivor confirmed the account and said local fishermen refused to help drowning passengers who jumped off the crowded boat.

The incident in southern Congo would be the deadliest boat accident in the Central African nation this year, and among the worst in Africa this year.

The boats that traverse Congo's rivers are often in poor repair and filled beyond capacity. The industry is not well-regulated and boat operators are known to fill boats to dangerous levels.

In the first incident in north-west Congo, Engumba said officials believe the boat's lack of lighting was responsible.

"We are going to arrest people involved who are in charge of regulating the boat's movement who failed to stop that boat from travelling at night," she said.

In the second incident, survivors said the boat was overloaded with people and goods. A local official said two of the boat's crew were arrested but both refused to say how many people were aboard. The official said the passenger manifest apparently vanished in the fire.

Fabrice Muamba, who said he was on the boat when it caught fire on Saturday night on the Kasai River, said he thought only 15 of the more than 200 people he thought were aboard were able to swim to safety. He said passengers began to jump overboard when the engine caught fire as it passed the remote village of Mbendayi, some 45 miles from the town of Tshikapa, which is north of Congo's border with Angola.

Another survivor, a woman named Romaine Mishondo, said the boat was already packed with "hundreds" of passengers when it stopped some 10 minutes before the fire to pick up more people. She said she did not know exactly how many people were aboard, but said the boat was so crowded it reminded her of "a whole market in a village full of people".


From Belfast Telegraph