World

New Guinea ferry sinks, hundreds rescued from sea

Rescuers pulled more than 230 survivors from the sea off Papua New Guinea's east coast after a ferry sank with as many as 350 people on board.

Ferry capsized in rough seas with many students on board

Rescuers pulled more than 230 survivors from the sea off Papua New Guinea's east coast after a ferry sank Thursday with as many as 350 people on board, many of them children.

An airplane from Australia, three helicopters and eight ships scoured the area after the MV Rabaul Queen went down while travelling from Kimbe on the island of New Britain to the coastal city of Lae on the main island, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said.

The ferry sank 80 kilometres east of Lae, the South Pacific country's second-largest city, and 16 kilometres from shore, it said in a statement.

Australian Broadcasting Corp. quoted police in Kimbe as saying that most of the passengers were students and trainee teachers. Liam Fox, reporting for ABC, said most of the students ranged from primary-school age to high schoolers.

Merchant ships took part in the rescue, as well as Australian aircraft capable of dropping life-rafts.

An official at the scene said the ferry capsized in rough seas and sank four hours later, Papua New Guinea's Post-Courier newspaper reported.

An airplane from Australia, three helicopters and eight ships were scouring the search area after the MV Rabaul Queen went down while travelling from Kimbe on the island of New Britain to coastal town of Lae on the main island, AMSA said.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard called the incident a "major tragedy" and said her country was providing assistance to its nearby neighbour.

"Given the likely very high loss of life here, I think when this news comes to the attention of Australians around the country they will be thinking about the people of PNG as they respond to this tragedy," she added.

Changing minute by minute

The Australian maritime agency initially detected the ferry's distress beacon and alerted the PNG Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre, which is co-ordinating the rescue effort. The Australian statement said 219 survivors had been recovered by five ships by late Thursday.

It said 350 people were believed to be on board, but Papua New Guinea's National Maritime Safety Authority (NMSA) rescue co-ordinator Captain Nurur Rahman said the true figure was likely lower.

"I cannot confirm or deny the 350 missing number. It is hearsay," Rahman said. "I have not seen the manifest as yet, but it is likely around 300."

Rahman said he was being fed information from an NMSA agent on board one of the ships. "The dynamics of this thing are changing all the time, minute by minute," he said.

Ship operator Star Ships could not be immediately contacted for comment.

PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill said there will be an investigation into the accident.

Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs says the ferry's owners do not believe foreigners were on board, however consular officials are still seeking confirmation.

Regular ferry services run to Kimbe, a popular dive site that attracts tourists from across the world.

With files from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation