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Congo Ferry Victims Mourned

Map of congo ferry disaster Nov 27 2003
AP
Congo's government promised Friday to prosecute those responsible for a ferry collision that left 182 people confirmed dead and scores more missing, saying investigators were questioning the larger vessel's owner and captain.

As work crews buried as many as four victims to a grave along the thickly forested shores of west Congo's Mai-Indombe lake, 3,000 mourners filled a cathedral in the lakeside town of Inongo for a Mass remembering victims of Tuesday's disaster.

As many as 500 fishermen, traders and other travelers were crowded into the ferry Dieu Merci and a smaller vessel, with both boats lashed together as they moved across the lake, authorities said.

The lake, 275 miles north of the capital, Kinshasa, is off the Congo River.

A sudden storm late Tuesday whipped up waves nearing 8 feet, smashing together the two boats and sending all aboard into the water as both vessels broke into pieces.

The government says 222 people are known to have survived. The Dieu Merci's manifest recorded only 30 of those aboard, making it unlikely a precise death toll would ever be known — although it likely will pass 200.

After initially blaming the storm, Congolese authorities said Friday that ferry overcrowding also was a major factor.

"We will take measures to determine responsibilities because the guilty absolutely must be punished," Congo Vice President Azarias Ruberwa said. "Overcrowded as the boat involved in the accident was, even if there hadn't been bad weather, they should have seen this happening."

Aid workers said the Dieu Merci — which means "Thank God" in French, the main nonresident language in Congo — was designed for about 100 people.

Authorities were questioning the Dieu Merci's owner and captain, among others, Ruberwa said.

On Friday, villagers helped a sole government-provided search boat retrieve bodies from the lake and its shores. Burial teams then placed the bodies of men, women and children on mats, putting them in common graves.

Families of those still missing agonized.

"Our sorrow is even greater because we don't know if they are alive or dead," said Nkande Pape Bolawe, whose family lost two men. "Now, we think it's impossible to find them alive — we're waiting at least for the bodies."

Congo's government reopened the river to commercial traffic in April after closing it during the country's nearly five-year war, fearing rebels could use it to move on the capital.

Congo, a nation the size of Western Europe, has only a few hundred miles of paved roads, making the river and its tributaries lifelines of the vast country's commerce.

In March, another overloaded ferry sank in Lake Tanganyika in Congo's far east, killing 111.

Africa's worst ferry accident occurred Sept. 26, 2002, when Senegal's state-run ferry — carrying nearly four times its intended capacity — overturned in a gale in the Atlantic Ocean, killing 1,863 people.