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Bangladesh hit by twin ferry disaster

Two river ferries capsized or sank in Bangladesh's storm-hit south yesterday and 240 passengers were reported missing as divers began a desperate search for survivors.

One of the packed ferries carrying around 250 people overturned early yesterday on the Meghna river and 50 were rescued, the state news agency BSS said. Earlier reports had said up to 300 were aboard.

A second ferry sank on the same river just one kilometre away and 40 passengers were missing, police said. Six were rescued from that vessel.

The disasters were the latest in a long series in the history of impoverished Bangladesh.

Divers were searching for survivors trapped in the upturned hull of the double-decker M.V. Lighting Sun, which had been sailing to Dhaka from the southern Madaripur area when it was swamped by the sudden storm near Chandpur, 170 kilometres east of the capital.

The other ferry, M.V. Diganta, sank while sailing from Narayanganj, near Dhaka, from coastal Gournadi district. Survivors said the storm hit after it left Chandpur, its last stop before Narayanganj.

Villagers joined the search for survivors, witnesses said. "I could hear people screaming and chanting 'Allah save us' before I jumped into the water and managed to swim to a nearby char (river island)," one survivor from the Lighting Sun was quoted as saying by a reporter at the scene.

The ferry sank within minutes, the survivor said. Some passengers were plucked from atop the upturned hull of the partly submerged vessel.

Many of the passengers were believed to be asleep when the vessel overturned at around 3:30 a.m. as the storm hit with winds of up to 90 kilometres per hour.

Rescue vessel M.V. Rustam reached the capsized ferry in late afternoon and immediately dropped divers to begin a full-scale salvage operation. Rescue efforts were hampered by strong winds and rain, officials supervising the operation said.

Rescuers had earlier managed to cut a part of the ferry's hull to let a handful of survivors out.

Thousands of people thronged the Meghna banks, desperately seeking relatives. Survivors said some people swam out through the Lighting Sun's windows and might have reached safety, while others were pulled out by rescuers.

Survivor Yasmin Begum, 35, swooned repeatedly as she wailed over the body of her 18-month old son. Her husband and his sister were missing, witnesses said.

Ten-year-old Mohammad Rana looked helplessly for his missing grandparents. "Someone bring them back to me," said the boy, crying inconsolably.

About 400 people were killed and hundreds are unaccounted for after a triple-decker ferry sank in a storm, also in Chandpur district, in July last year.

Officials and police said many ferries often took people in excess of approved capacity, making it impossible to know the exact casualties after accidents.

Inland water transport authority officials say about 1,000 people die in ferry accidents in the country every year, but the number of missing is far more.

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