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Families demand answers

By Mariam Fam The Associated press

SAFAGA, Egypt – Family members of passengers on a ferry that sank in the Red Sea protested yesterday as they waited in vain for news of their loved ones, accusing Egypt’s government of mishandling the rescue after the ship went down with more than 1,400 people on board.

Only a handful more of passengers were pulled from the sea, dashing hopes for some 1,000 feared dead.

Lawmakers called for investigations and said the ship’s owner had been responsible for previous disasters. Egyptian officials said the captain was missing, and some survivors alleged he had jumped into one of the first lifeboats out, rather than stay with the crippled ship.

Late yesterday police put the number of those rescued at 401 – up from 376 reported on Saturday – and an indication that few more survivors would be found. It was unclear when the additional 25 people had been rescued.

A total of 195 bodies have been recovered.

Among the survivors was 5-year-old Mohammed Ahmed Hassan, kept afloat for more than 20 hours by a life ring. Doctors said the boy was in good condition but apparently had lost his parents, sister and brother.

The Al-Salaam Boccaccio 98 was carrying more than 1,400 passengers and crew and 220 cars when it quickly sank early Friday about 55 miles from the Egyptian Red Sea port of Hurghada. Most of the passengers were Egyptian workers returning from Saudi Arabia.

Outside the Red Sea port in Safaga, where survivors were being taken, about 100 family members shouted at police and criticized Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for not providing more information. On Saturday, at similar demonstrations in the port 280 miles southeast of Cairo, family members threw stones at police.

“Where is the president, where are our sons? Where are the bodies? We want to know the fate of the children,” yelled the protesters, who had been waiting in the area for two days.

“If you don’t have the bodies, at least give us [death] certificates and let us go. You have been torturing us for days,” shouted Heshmat Mohammed Hassan, whose brother is still missing.

The families need death certificates to claim a payment of $5,200 that the president has said should go to the family of each victim. The president said survivors would each get $2,600.

Mubarak flew to Hurghada, about 40 miles north of Safaga, on Saturday and visited survivors in two hospitals. Television pictures of the visit, which normally would have carried sound of Mubarak’s conversations, were silent.

“We pray that God almighty may count [the victims] among his martyrs,” Mubarak said during his visit, in remarks that were televised.

Fire broke out in the vessel’s parking bay as it was about 20 miles from the Saudi shore where it had sailed from, survivors said yesterday. The crew decided to push across the Red Sea, to try to reach Egypt’s shores 110 miles away.

As it burned, many passengers moved to one side of the 35-year-old ship. An explosion was heard, and high winds helped topple the unbalanced vessel.

Initial offers of help in the rescue effort from the United States and Britain were rejected, and four Egyptian ships reached the scene only by Friday afternoon, about 10 hours after the ferry was believed to have capsized.

Survivors came forward yesterday with more tales of crew errors before the sinking.

Khaled Hassan, a 27-year-old survivor from the village of al-Dhobiyah near Luxor who was traveling home after working in Kuwait, said he saw the ship’s captain jump into a lifeboat as passengers were left behind. His story could not be verified.

Abdul Muhsin Rayan, a 35-year-old from Sohag who had been working in Saudi Arabia, said as smoke engulfed the ship, crew members told the passengers not to put on life jackets that were nearby, because that would panic women and children.

“From the captain on down, no one gave us any instructions on what to do,” he said from a hospital bed.

The tragedy struck a deep core of discontent among Egyptians, who are suffering from an economic downturn.

Tens of thousands of Egyptians work in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries – many of them from impoverished families in southern Egypt who spend years abroad to earn money. They often travel by ship to and from Saudi Arabia.

Independent Egyptian newspapers have accused Mubarak’s government of protecting the ship’s owner, who they say is close to a top official in government.

The weekly independent paper Soutelomma said two other ferries owned by the company had sunk in the past 10 years, without the government properly investigating or putting the company’s owner on trial.

Mustafa al-Bakri, part of a delegation of 20 members of parliament who went to Safaga, said lawmakers would try to investigate why Egyptian officials received no distress call from the ship.

He also said the company that owned the ship “is responsible for several other disasters.”

Mubarak spokesman Suleiman Awad said the ferry did not have enough lifeboats and an investigation was under way into the ship’s seaworthiness.

But Maj. Gen. Sherin Hasan, chairman of the maritime section of the Transportation Ministry, said there were more than enough lifeboats for the number of passengers on the ferry.

Hasan said the captain of the vessel, whom he did not name, was missing.

The ship was owned by El Salam Maritime which issued a statement declaring it complied “with all the international safety regulations and treaties and [was] certified to make international voyages.”

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