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1,000 ferry passengers missing in Red Sea

Ship went down amid high seas, bad weather

Rescue boats search the Red Sea on Friday for survivors of a ferry sinking.


Saudi Arabia

SAFAGA, Egypt (CNN) -- Distraught relatives kept vigil near the port of Safaga Saturday, waiting to find out whether their loved ones were among more than 340 people who survived after an Egyptian ferry sank in the Red Sea with about 1,400 people on board.

One day after the vessel sank, rescue boats were searching the chilly sea through the night for hundreds of people feared dead.

The Al Salam Boccaccio 98 was loaded to near capacity with about 1,400 people -- about 1,300 passengers and 100 crew members -- and dozens of vehicles when it sank at midnight (5 p.m. Thursday ET), Egyptian officials said.

Egypt's state-run Nile TV reported that at least 100 people had died, though Egyptian officials said earlier that far fewer deaths had been confirmed.

About 1,000 family members and friends, many of them sobbing, were gathered at the port before Transport Minister Mohammed Lufty Mansour announced the latest survivor tally of 343. Riot police were on hand to quell any violence.

At nightfall, about 1,000 people were still unaccounted for.

"There is definitely a big concern and fear as to the numbers of the people, the deaths in this very, very tragic event," Mansour said.

Nile TV said the passengers included at least 115 foreigners, 99 of them Saudis. Most of the others were Egyptians who work in Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. State Department said no Americans were among the listed passengers.

The cause of the sinking was unclear. Seas were high at the time and the weather was bad, according to Mansour.

Rear Adm. Mahfouz Marzouk, head of the Suez Port Authority, said a collision along the congested waterway could not have been to blame.

"It is not possible, because we covered all these areas with radar," he said. "If it were something like that, of course, we would have another ship or a distress signal or something like that."

However, some of the survivors who were taken to Hurghada, off Egypt's north-central Red Sea coast, reported to CNN that there was a fire on board before the ship sank with its cargo of passengers and freight. They didn't elaborate. Hurghada is below the Sinai Peninsula.

The Egyptian government announced the formation of a committee to investigate the disaster. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak planned to visit the port Saturday.

Egyptian officials haven't ruled out terrorism, but were playing down the possibility.

"These sorts of ships are famous for having stability problems," said David Osler of Lloyd's Maritime Magazine, in London. "We can't rule out anything at this stage."

The United States, Britain, and Israel offered help, but there was no word of Egypt accepting assistance. Britain said Egypt turned down its offer to send an amphibious assault ship, a type of vessel often called a helicopter carrier.

Saudi Arabia sent a couple of vessels to assist, Mansour said.

Four frigates and a navy destroyer converged on the site, about 57 miles from Hurghada, and joined a search-and-rescue effort, said Adel Shoukri, a spokesman for El Salam Maritime Transport Co., the Cairo-based company that owns the ferry. Hurghada is off Egypt's north-central Red Sea coast, south of the Sinai Peninsula.

The ferry had departed Dubah, in western Saudi Arabia, en route to Egypt's southern port of Safaga when radar contact was lost, Shoukri said. The route is about 120 miles.

The ferry, which was also carrying five trucks and 22 cars, was to have arrived at its destination at 2:30 a.m. (7:30 p.m. Thursday ET), the governor of Egypt's Red Sea district told Nile TV.

Another company spokesman said the ship was certified to carry passengers until 2010 and was fully compliant with maintenance regulations. The ship, which was built in 1970 and flew a Panamanian flag, was involved in a collision in 1999, he said.

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