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Papua New Guinea to shift to recovery mode in ferry sinking

By Hamdi Alkhshali, CNN
updated 3:23 AM EST, Sun February 5, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "Basically we are looking for bodies from now onwards," an official says
  • 246 of 350 passengers survived
  • Officials have recovered six bodies
  • Poor weather may have led to the ferry sinking

(CNN) -- Authorities in Papua New Guinea said Sunday it may be time to shift from rescue to recovery mode in their search for 98 people who remain unaccounted for in last week's ferry sinking.

"Whilst rescue operations are likely to continue, weather permitting, for some more time, basically we are looking for bodies from now onwards," said Capt. Nurur Rahman, rescue coordinator for the National Maritime Safety Authority.

"There is a high degree of confidence, that if there were any active survivors or persons inside life rafts or with lifejackets within the search area that they would have been sighted and recovered by now," Rahman added.

About 350 people were aboard the MV Rabaul Queen when it sank off the east coast of Papua New Guinea on Thursday -- about 16 kilometers (10 miles) off Cape Fortification in the Vitiaz Strait.

The ferry was carrying passengers from the town of Kimbe on New Britain Island to Lae, the second-largest city in Papua New Guinea.

"Taking ferries is the most economic method of transport for people traveling between the islands and the mainland," Rahman said last week. "What I understand from local media is that a lot of students and their parents were traveling to schools that recently reopened on the mainland."

Some 246 survivors were rescued, and authorities found six bodies. Ninety-eight people are still missing, Rahman said Sunday.

It is likely the weather was a contributing factor in the ferry's sinking as there were high winds at the time in what is a notoriously dangerous area, authorities said.

Papua New Guinea has a population of 6.7 million, with about 190,000 people living in Lae, according to the U.S. State Department.

Most of the population is scattered in small settlements across the state's many islands.

CNN's Kim Chakanetsa, Elizabeth Joseph, Karen Smith and Jethro Mullen contributed to this report.

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