Ship sinks off Indonesia's Sulawesi; up to 29 dead

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JAKARTA, Oct 19 (Reuters) An Indonesian ship that might have been overloaded with passengers capsized off the island of Sulawesi, killing up to 29 people and leaving many missing, officials said today.

The small wooden ship sank last night just before reaching the town of Baubau in southeastern Sulawesi, transport ministry spokesman Bambang Ervan said.

The official said 15 people had died and six were missing from the vessel, which he said had 82 people on board.

But Laode Hamdansyah, head of the Indonesian Red Cross in Baubau, said 29 bodies had been retrieved and that 200 might have been on board, with around half still missing.

''Preliminary investigations have indicated that the ship may have sunk because passengers piled onto one side... tipping its balance and causing it to roll over,'' Ervan said.

Authorities were still investigating the cause but Ervan said the seas were calm at the time of the accident.

Hamdansyah said the ship might have been overloaded.

''We suspect the ship was overcrowded. Based on the information we received there were over 200 people on the ship.'' It is often difficult to pin down the number of people on passenger ships in Indonesia, since official manifests are notoriously unreliable.

It is common for people to sneak on to ferries or bribe crew to let them aboard for less than the price of a ticket, meaning their names are not recorded.

Hamdansyah said 40 Red Cross rescuers on three fishing boats, along with two marine police vessels, were scouring the seas for more survivors.

The safety record of Indonesian passenger ships and ferries, widely used to connect the thousands of islands in the archipelago, is poor with vessels frequently overloaded and in poor condition.

REUTERS SYU DS1246

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