Bodies of 66 Indonesia ferry victims found -agency

 
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REMBANG, Indonesia, Dec 31 (Reuters) Indonesian rescuers have found the bodies of 66 victims of a ferry sinking, state media said today, but more than 400 people remain missing after the vessel capsized in mountainous seas.

Survivors in Rembang, a town on the Central Java coast, told harrowing stories of the ship's last moments and their struggles to put on lifejackets and get into lifeboats just before the Senopati Nusantara sank around midnight on Friday.

One survivor in Rembang told Reuters the ship had started to roll over after struggling in high seas and heavy rains.

''Suddenly the lights went off and it became dark. The ship's crew tossed lifejackets ... some could not get any but I got one,'' said Waluyo, 53.

''I tried to get into a rubber boat but many people also did the same thing, so the rubber boat was torn ... Finally, I grabbed the edge of another rubber boat.'' Waluyo said he did not know the fate of his two children, one a young adult and the other an infant, who had been travelling with him.

The ship was travelling from Kalimantan on Borneo to Semarang in Central Java.

Riyadi, Search and Rescue operational chief in Semarang, Central Java, told Reuters the ferry was carrying 628 people including 57 crew, according to the manifest.

State news agency Antara said the bodies of 66 on board had been located, many in waters and on beaches near Rembang. Earlier, only two deaths had been confirmed.

The number of known survivors reached 119 as of late Sunday morning, according to statements from officials.

Rescuers have mobilised three navy ships, 12 speed boats, and several helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft for the search.

In the latest reported finding, a search and rescue team located 14 more survivors, one in critical condition.

''But because of bad weather and high waves about three to four metres (10-14 feet), the victims have not been taken to the (beach)'' for evacuation, coast guard officer Sugeng Rahorjo told Reuters.

PANIC Another survivor said massive waves battered the ship, scattering furniture in every direction.

''The crew told us to be calm and that nothing was going to happen. But at about 11:15 hrs the ship began to turn over and then capsized,'' Irfan told Metro TV.

''I was flushed out by water and I saw many people struggling to save themselves,'' he said.

About 40 survivors were treated for minor injuries at a Rembang hospital before shifting to a temporary shelter to wait for relatives or find their own way home.

Family members of missing passengers were in Rembang asking survivors and officials for any information about their loved ones.

Harry Subari, 33, said the police had good news for him.

''I have information about my family. They are on the way from Sarang beach to here,'' he told Reuters.

The sinking of the Senopati Nusantara was the second ferry disaster in as many days after a vessel overturned on Thursday night in rough seas off Sumatra.

Heavy seas and bad weather hampered initial rescue attempts in both cases.

Transportation Minister Hatta Rajasa told the BBC Indonesian service late on Saturday that the Japanese-made 2,178-tonne Senopati Nusantara was seaworthy and had a capacity of more than 850 passengers.

''We will continue the search operation, normally until seven days, but it can be extended until we are sure that we have made our utmost efforts.'' Ships and ferries are a popular means of transport among Indonesia's 17,000 islands, where sea connections are cheaper and more available than air routes. However, safety standards are not always enforced, and accidents occur fairly often.

Rescue efforts were continuing for passengers from the ferry that capsized off Sumatra on Thursday.

''Of 51 passengers, we have found four bodies and 28 people (have) been secured,'' Abu Sopha Ibrahim, spokesman for South Sumatra police, said late yesterday.

REUTERS BDP BD1155

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