PHILIPPINES: Over 70 people were feared dead yesterday after a ferry disappeared in rough seas in the Philippines, where rescuers have virtually given up hope of finding survivors from landslides that have claimed some 200 lives.
The 63-tonne Piary disappeared in the Sulu Sea off the southern coast of Palawan island on Sunday after large waves smashed a hole in the vessel's hull, the coastguard said.
Its last distress call informed the shore that the vessel was about to sink and that its 68 passengers and a crew of six had donned lifejackets, said the coastguard district commander Captain Godofredo Mandal.
Anxious relatives swamped the coastguard station. The ferry had come from the Cagayan de Sulu island group east of Palawan.
Naval reconnaissance aircraft failed to locate the vessel or any survivors, while navy and coastguard vessels battled huge waves stirred by seasonal strong winds which brought torrential rain across the southern half of the country.
“The current sea condition is very rough due to strong northeasterly winds prevailing at the area at this time of the year,” the coast guard said. “This somehow hampers the ongoing search and rescue operation.”
The ferry's disappearance cast a new pall over the Christmas season in the predominantly Catholic country, which is still digging out bodies from landslides in the central islands that destroyed entire villages on Friday.
Rescue workers pulled out 102 more bodies from the mud and debris on Panaon island since Sunday, said regional police chief Dionisio Coloma.
The confirmed deaths from the island accounted for 170 of the 191 bodies recovered so far.
Nearly 100,000 people have been displaced across the disaster areas and dozens more are missing, raising the likely death toll from the mudslides to more than 200.
Nearly a week of heavy rain unleashed landslides and floods on the islands of Leyte, Panaon and Bohol as well as the north-east section of Mindanao, the country's second largest island.
“Massive disaster operations are ongoing and I would like to thank the US government for lending a hand in the delivery of assistance and the search for the missing,” said President Gloria Arroyo.
Washington has offered all-weather rescue helicopters.
Defence Secretary Eduardo Ermita said yesterday that Panaon residents had given up hope of recovering relatives and neighbours still believed buried in several landslides.
“The stench is overpowering several days later and the families of the missing in San Francisco (town) have given permission to the government to cover the rubble instead, converting it into a mass grave,” Ermita told DZBB radio.
Pope John Paul II, in a message sent to the Vatican's representative office in Manila, said he was praying for “divine strength and comfort” for the families of the victims.
“(I am) deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life resulting from the recent landslides in the Philippines,” the Pope said.
The weather lifted briefly yesterday, allowing military vessels to deliver food, medicine, and equipment to Tacloban on Leyte island. – AFP
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