Death toll tops 130 in Tanzania ferry disaster, police say

At least 136 bodies have been recovered after a ferry sank on Lake Victoria, says Tanzania's top police official.

37 rescued, but exact number of passengers and crew on board is unclear

Workers rescue survivors after a ferry overturned on Lake Victoria, Tanzania, on Thursday, in a still image made from video. (Reuters)

At least 136 bodies have been retrieved after a ferry sank on Lake Victoria, Tanzania's top police official Simon Sirro said on Friday. Scores more were still feared missing as rescuers searched for survivors on the morning after the disaster.

The ferry MV Nyerere capsized Thursday afternoon just a few metres from the dock on Ukerewe, the lake's biggest island.

Initial estimates suggested that the ferry was carrying more than 300 people.

"We have directed that all individuals who were involved in causing this accident to be arrested," President John Magufuli said in an address to the nation on state-owned broadcaster TBC. He also declared four days of mourning for the state. 

"I have information that some have been arrested including the captain who, I am told, was not on board."

With some opposition politicians saying the government responded late to the sinking, Magufuli warned against politicizing the disaster.

"Let's leave designated authorities to investigate," he said.

Crew, equipment lost

Thirty-seven people have been rescued, Jonathan Shana, regional police commander for the port of Mwanza on the south coast of the lake, told Reuters by phone on Friday.

Shana said more rescuers had joined the operation when it resumed at daylight on Friday, but he did not give an exact figure.

The precise number of those aboard was hard to establish since crew and equipment had been lost, officials said on Thursday.

The MV Nyerere, named for the former president who led the East African nation to independence, was travelling between the islands of Ukara and Ukerewe when it sank, according to the government agency in charge of servicing the vessels.

Worried residents on Friday waited for any word of survivors.

"We try to make calls to friends, relatives," a local guide, Paschal Phares, told The Associated Press. He recalled how crowded his trip on the aging ferry had been last month: "Most of us were standing up. It was full."

'More than 200' feared dead

State-owned Habari Leo reported on its website on Friday that top officials of the Surface and Marine Transport Regulatory Authority would be questioned about the accident.

Preliminary investigations, the paper said, showed the ferry had carried more passengers than permitted.

"More than 200 people are feared dead," based on accounts from fishermen and other witnesses, because passengers had been returning from a busy market day, Tanzania Red Cross spokeswoman Godfrida Jola told the AP. "But no one knows" just how many people were on board.

Another image made from video shows rescuers examining the hull of the ferry after it capsized. (Reuters)

It was obvious that more bodies were trapped in the overturned ferry, the president said, according to a report in The Citizen newspaper. He said even the cargo far exceeded the 25 tons allowed.

Lake Victoria, Africa's largest, has a length of more than 330 kilometres and is 250 kilometres across at its widest point. Accidents are often reported on the large freshwater lake surrounded by Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda.

Some of the deadliest have occurred in Tanzania, where passenger boats are often said to be old and in poor condition.

With files from The Associated Press