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At least 94 killed in Iraq in Tigris River ferry accident

A ferry overloaded with people celebrating the Kurdish new year and Mother's Day capsized in the Tigris River near the Iraqi city of Mosul on Thursday, killing at least 94 people, including families, officials said.

Ferry passengers were celebrating Nowruz, the Persian new year

A woman is helped off a boat at the site of a popular picnic area near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on the shores of the Tigris River, after a ferry sank on Thursday. (Waleed Al-Khaled/AFP/Getty Images)

A ferry overloaded with people celebrating the Kurdish new year and Mother's Day capsized in the Tigris River near the Iraqi city of Mosul on Thursday, killing at least 94 people, including families, officials said.

Many of the dead were women and children who could be seen struggling to swim against a strong current, their heads bobbing in the water opposite restaurants and an amusement park where people had been celebrating minutes earlier.

The death toll from the accident, which residents said was the worst in recent memory, was expected to rise as people waited on the banks of the Tigris for news of loved ones.

Col. Hussam Khalil, head of civil defence in Iraq's northern Nineveh province, told The Associated Press the accident occurred as scores of people were out in the tourist area, known as Ghabat, celebrating Nowruz, which marks the Kurdish new year and the arrival of spring.

The boat had been ferrying people to a small island nearby.

Abdulrazzaq Falih, a rescuer with the river police of Mosul, said he pulled more than 20 bodies from the water.

This image taken from video provided by Mohammed Issam to The Associated Press shows boats trying to rescue people in the Tigris. (Mohammed Issam via AP)

"Children, women and young, what can I tell you? It was a difficult situation," he said.

A man who identified himself as Abdul-Jabbar al-Jbouri appealed for the police to look for his wife and children.

"My wife and three daughters are in the water!" he screamed.

Interior Ministry spokesperson Maj.-Gen. Saad Maan said 55 had been rescued, including 19 children.

Witness says boat was overloaded

Mosul was devastated by the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, which occupied the city for three years. Iraqi forces drove the militants from Mosul in 2017 after a gruelling campaign that left entire neighbourhoods in ruins, and residents are still struggling to rebuild.

Videos of the ferry disaster posted online showed people struggling against the strong current. Young men who had been lunching on the banks jumped into the water with their clothes on to try and save people.

The usually tame Tigris is running high this time of year, fed by snowmelt from mountains in Turkey. The river swelled further after a rainy season that brought more precipitation than in previous years.

Falah al-Taii, director of Nineveh health department, said the number of victims that arrived at the forensic department and in the hospitals in Mosul is more than 60, the majority of them women and children.

"There is a large number of fathers and mothers who are looking for their children until now," he added.

A ferry carries families back from the Tigris to the docks on the outskirts of Mosul. (Waleed al-Khaled/AFP/Getty Images)

Khalil said the ferry sank because of a technical problem, and added there weren't many boats in the area to rescue people.

Saudi Aziz, a 23-year-old Kurd, said he was on another ferry crossing the river. He said the stricken ferry was overloaded with around 150 people when it capsized. He said it wasn't long before he saw people drowning, their heads bobbing up and "sliding away across the water like plastic bags."

He said he jumped in the water and managed to save a 20-year-old girl.

"I cannot describe the scene. It's a catastrophe," he said.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi — who expressed deep condolences to families of the victims, and ordered an investigation — arrived in Mosul later Thursday, according to Iraqi TV, he where he declared three days of national mourning.

Media reports indicated that nine workers operating the ferry have been detained and an arrest warrant is out for the owner of the tourist island where it was headed.

The U.S. Embassy said Charge d'Affaires Joey Hood and the entire mission "express our deepest condolences to the families and friends of those who lost their lives in the tragic ferry accident on the Tigris River near Mosul."

Nowruz, or the Persian new year, dates back to 1700 BC and incorporates Zoroastrian traditions. It is celebrated across territories that once made up the ancient Persian empire, stretching from the Middle East to Central Asia.

The accident Thursday occurred in the Tigris in Nineveh province. (Google)

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