by Shafiq Alam
DHAKA, March 13, 2012 (AFP) - At least 26 people died and more than 100 people were missing after a ferry sank in Bangladesh in the early hours of Tuesday morning, officials said, adding that about 35 survivors had been found.
Rescue workers began retrieving bodies from inside the double-decker Shariatpur 1 ferry, which was hit by another vessel in the middle of the Meghna river, 40 kilometres (25 miles) southeast of the capital Dhaka.
"Divers have recovered 26 dead bodies from the sunken vessel including five women and two children," local deputy police chief Tariqul Islam told AFP by telephone, adding the death toll was likely to rise.
Hundreds of people, including some desperate relatives, crowded the river banks during the rescue operation as bodies were carried from the water.
Mahbubul Alam, secretary of the Inland Water Transport Authority, said the vessel, which was built in 1991, appeared to have sunk rapidly after the collision.
"We talked to a rescued passenger. He told us that the vessel sank with a loud noise in minutes after it hit the other vessel, giving most passengers no chance to swim to safety," he said.
A investigation has been ordered, he added.
Police said that about 35 passengers had been rescued by a passing ferry, the MV Mitali, soon after the accident at about 2:30 am (2030 GMT Monday).
That ship's captain told the ATN Bangla TV channel: "We stopped our vessel after hearing the cry of 'Save us, save us'."
One rescued passenger, named as Dulal, told local media that eight of his relatives were missing. He said most people were asleep when the accident happened in the district of Munshiganj.
Other rescued passengers reported that the Dhaka-bound boat was overcrowded and was also carrying dozens of sacks of chillies.
Bangladesh, a densely-populated and poverty-stricken country of 150 million people, is set on a delta of rivers that empty into the Bay of Bengal.
Boats are the main form of travel in Bangladesh's remote rural areas and accidents are common due to lax safety standards and overloading.
The exact number of people on any ferry is often uncertain as passenger lists are not maintained properly and many buy their tickets when on board.
In April last year 32 people were killed after a passenger vessel sank in the Meghna river after colliding with a cargo ship. At least 85 people drowned in 2009 when an overloaded triple-decker ferry capsized off Bhola Island in the country's south.
Naval officials have said more than 95 percent of Bangladesh's hundreds of thousands of small- and medium-sized boats do not meet minimum safety regulations.