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Djibouti ship sinks off coast, at least 69 dead

Written by: Staff

DJIBOUTI, Apr 6 (Reuters) A Djiboutian boat carrying some 250 people on an annual religious pilgrimage sank today, killing at least 69 in one of the country's worst recent tragedies, authorities said.

The wooden boat laden with construction materials and three times the passengers it was built for sank just 100 metres from the port in Djibouti, a tiny Red Sea state of 300,000, witnesses said.

It was sailing for the town of Tadjoura, 35 km (22 miles) northeast, when it went down shortly around 1530 hrs IST on a pilgrimage known as Djamaad.

''It was so quick that people were brought down by the materials which sank with them,'' survivor Ali Mohamed told Reuters.

Another survivor, Omar Souleiki, said a small wave caused the boat to capsize.

Local fishermen, later assisted by the French and Djiboutian navies, scrambled to rescue the victims, many of whom were elderly men who could not swim.

At least 20 people were believed still missing from the boat, which was built to carry a maximum of 80, officials said.

The search was called off as night fell.

Thirty-six people were hospitalised, with seven in serious condition, hospital officials said.

Witnesses said there was pandemonium as people rushed to board the boat earlier in the day.

No passenger list was available and women wailed as they recognised photos of their loved ones placed on walls in police stations.

The dead were laid next to buildings along the port until nightfall when some were taken to hospitals and others were buried as people flocked to mosques to pray for the dead.

Captain Bob Everdeen of the Combined Joint US Task Force Horn of Africa based in Djibouti said Navy divers had been sent to assist.

The small Red Sea state is a hub of US counterterrorism operations in the region.

The disaster was the worst to strike tiny Djibouti since April 2003, when flooding killed 50 people in one night.

Reuters PG VP0202

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