YAOUNDE, Mar 23 (Reuters) At least 127 people were feared drowned after a wooden boat travelling from Nigeria to Gabon sank off Cameroon's Atlantic port of Kribi, a local official and aid workers today said.
The boat, which broke up in high seas, was discovered by a fisherman who alerted his colleagues and people living in coastal villages who rushed to the scene to find bodies floating on the water and survivors hanging on to flotsam.
''By the time we called security agents and reached the area, a group of fishermen and villagers had already mobilised and were trying to rescue passengers,'' said Gregoire Mvodo, a senior local official in Kribi.
''Unfortunately almost all of them perished. Thanks to the very hard working and tireless fishermen, we succeeded in saving only 23 people,'' he said.
The boat was travelling from the eastern Nigerian port of Oron to Port Gentil in Gabon, carrying passengers including nationals of Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Benin, Mali and Niger who had set off to find work in Gabon.
The local Red Cross co-ordinator in the region around Kribi, Francois Mahouwa, said the boat had officially been carrying 150 passengers but that some survivors said twice that number had in fact been on board.
''The Nigerians said there were 150 on board but the Burkinabe, the Beninois and those from Niger said there were nearer 300,'' Mahouwa told Reuters by telephone.
OVERCROWDED BOATS Many of the vessels plying trade and passenger routes off West Africa's shores are poorly maintained and overcrowded, with accurate passenger manifests a rarity.
Mahouwa said 22 men, three women and a young girl had been saved and were being given food, shelter and medical care for minor injuries in the village of Londji, around 15 km (9 miles) north of Kribi port.
''The sea was very rough. There were many waves. They were in a wooden boat with a lot of people and a lot of goods on board. It seems that a wave broke the wood and water started to enter,'' Mahouwa said based on accounts from some of the survivors.
He said it would be difficult to establish a final death toll as those bodies that had been recovered were quickly being buried in communal graves by local villagers along the coast. The search for remaining survivors had been called off.
There have been several shipping disasters in recent years in the Gulf of Guinea, where passengers often travel in overloaded vessels lacking communications, particularly on the route from Nigeria used by labourers going to work in Gabon.
About 30 people drowned after a boat travelling from Nigeria to Gabon capsized off Kribi in high seas last July.
A group of 68 children thought to be victims of child trafficking were rescued from a sinking ship off Cameroon in 2001. At least 280 people drowned when their overcrowded boat capsized during a trip from Nigeria to Gabon in 1998.
Reuters SY RS0003