(MENAFN - Arab News) At least two people died and dozens were rescued after a passenger ferry collided with another ship and capsized yesterday on a river in central Bangladesh, dumping as many as 100 people into the water, officials and witnesses said. Scores of people were still missing in the mishap the latest in a series of disasters blamed on lax safety standards.
The small vessel was ferrying passengers on the Meghna river, close to the town of Gazaria in the central Munshiganj district, in the morning when it collided with a barge laden with sand to be used for construction.
While some passengers managed to swim to safety as the wooden boat went down rapidly, many others remained unaccounted for, said officials involved in the rescue effort.
"So far we have gathered that the ferry was carrying around 100 people. A maximum 40 people are feared missing," local police chief Jahangir Hossain told AFP.
Munshiganj's district administrator Saifuddin Badal said that more than 50 people were still unaccounted for after the disaster.
"We heard around 25 people have swum ashore," he told AFP.
Badal said the boat, named MV Sarosh, was carrying passengers from the capital Dhaka to the southeastern district of Chandpur.
"The rescue vessel MV Rustam has arrived at the scene. We expect we can salvage the ship very soon," he said, adding that divers had been called in to help locate the boat.
The exact number of people on board was uncertain as passenger lists are often not maintained properly in Bangladesh and many travellers buy tickets on board.
Hundreds of distraught relatives gathered on both sides of the river, anxiously waiting to know the fate of their loved ones.
Bangladesh has a history of boat disasters as a result of poor safety standards and frequent overloading of vessels.
Last March 147 people were killed when a passenger vessel sank in the Meghna river after colliding with a cargo ship.
At least 149 people were killed in the worst boat tragedy in February 2005 when a ferry sank in the Buriganga river on the outskirts of Dhaka.
In December 2009 46 people, mostly women and children, drowned in Daira river in northeastern district of Kishorganj after a ferry capsized and sank.
Ferries are the main form of transport in Bangladesh, a low-lying country that is subject to frequent flooding and where the road network is rudimentary.
However many of the vessels that plough the 230 or so rivers that traverse the country date back to before independence in 1971 and overcrowding is frequent.
Naval officials have said more than 95 percent of Bangladesh's hundreds of thousands of small and medium-sized boats do not meet minimum safety regulations.
Ferry accidents are common in Bangladesh, a delta nation of 153 million people, and it is frequently unclear how many people are aboard the often overcrowded vessels.
The ML Sarash was on a local run from Narayanganj city to Matlab in the south when it went down.
Rally demands ban on Jamaat-e-Islami
Tens of thousands of people rallied Friday in the capital Dhaka and other cities to demand a ban on Bangladesh's largest Islamic party and the execution of its leaders who are on trial for war crimes.
The protests have been going on since Tuesday when Abdul Quader Molla, a senior figure in the Jamaat-e-Islami party, was sentenced to life imprisonment for mass murder during the 1971 independence war against Pakistan.
But the numbers swelled yesterday, a weekend here, with pro-government supporters saying the sentence from a domestic war crimes tribunal was too lenient and that Molla should have been sent to the gallows.
Eight other leaders of the party are still being tried by the court, which Jamaat and the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) say is biased and designed to silence the government's enemies.
"Jamaat and (its student wing) Shibir wing must be banned," said Kamal Lohani, one of the organisers of the protest in Dhaka.
Sirajul Islam, police chief for the Shahbagh region of central Dhaka, told AFP "more than 100,000 people" had joined the rally in the capital.
Similar protests were held in a dozen other cities, police said.
Molla's sentencing was the second by the tribunal, a domestic set-up which lacks any international oversight and criticised by rights groups and jurists.
Last month it handed down the death penalty to an Islamic TV preacher whose whereabouts are unknown.
The latest sentence triggered deadly protests nationwide as Jamaat rejected the verdict and its supporters clashed with police, leaving at least four people dead.
The tribunal, which was created by the secular government in 2010, is also trying two senior BNP officials.