March 23, 2006

At least 127 drown as boat sinks off Cameroon

By Tansa Musa

YAOUNDE (Reuters) - At least 127 people were feared drowned
after a wooden boat traveling from Nigeria to Gabon sank off
Cameroon's Atlantic port of Kribi, a local official and aid
workers said on Thursday.

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 mobilized
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 traveling 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.


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

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 laborers going to work in Gabon.

About 30 people drowned after a boat traveling 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.

(Additional reporting by Nick Tattersall in Dakar)