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High seas thwart ferry rescue efforts

Officials in the Philippines refused to give up hope of rescuing some of the 800 people missing after a ferry capsized during Typhoon Fengshen, even as high seas stalled efforts to get inside the vessel today.

Divers heard no response when they hammered on the tip of the 23,824-ton Princess of Stars which was jutting from the water off Sibuyan island in the central Philippines.

"We're not ruling out that somebody there is still alive," coastguard chief Wilfredo Tamayo said. "You can never tell."

But strong waves that have largely kept a small flotilla of rescue ships at bay continued to pound the area today, leaving officials to plan the best way to get inside - either with divers from below or by a hole that would be drilled in the hull, Mr Tamayo said.

A US Navy ship carrying search-and-rescue helicopters was expected to arrive from Okinawa later today, and a P-3 maritime surveillance plane was also being dispatched.

However, hope dwindled by the hour that large groups of survivors might be found in areas where communications were cut off by the weekend storm which left at least 163 people dead in flooded communities.

Only 38 wave-battered survivors from the ferry have been found so far, including 28 who drifted at sea for more than 24 hours in life jackets before they were found yesterday about 80 miles to the north in Mulanay township, in eastern Quezon province.

But bodies were washing up on shore to the west and north-west, too.

Coastguards were checking a survivor's report that at least one group of people - some dead, some alive - had been spotted bobbing in the sea.

Eleandro Madrona, a local congressman who flew over the ferry today, reported seeing only a tugboat nearby because of the conditions.

"I was thinking, where could these 700 people be?" he said. "There's no operation there at this time, but the search and rescue is ongoing in nearby islands."

Officials initially reported that 747 passengers and crew were on board the ferry, but said today that it was carrying about 100 more.

While some relatives tearfully waited for news, others were angry that the ship was allowed to leave Manila late on Friday for a 20-hour trip to Cebu with a typhoon approaching.

Fresh debate began on safe-sailing rules in a country prone to storms - Fengshen was the seventh typhoon this year - and dependent on ferries to get around the sprawling archipelago.

The ferry's owner, Sulpicio Lines, said the ship sailed with coastguard approval. The company said it will give $4,500 (£2,300) in compensation to relatives of each person who died, along with financial assistance to the survivors.

The ship ran aground at around noon on Saturday, and then capsized.

Survivor Reynato Lanoria, a janitor on the ship, estimated that about 100 people could have escaped the vessel, but thought the others were trapped inside.

The Philippines was the scene of the world's worst peacetime maritime disaster when the ferry Dona Paz sank in 1987, killing more than 4,341 people.

Typhoon Fengshen lashed the central Philippines early on Saturday, triggering landslides and floods, knocking out power and leaving hundreds listed as missing.

Three entire provinces - Albay, Antique and Iloilo - were declared to be in a state of disaster, along with three towns in two other provinces, officials said.

Packing sustained winds of 74mph and gusts of up to 93mph, the typhoon shifted course yesterday to the north-west and battered Manila at dawn, dumping heavy rain on the capital.

Anthony Golez, deputy chief of the Office of Civil Defence, said the storm took an erratic path and never slowed down when it hit land with huge deluges of rain. It continued to dump rain on Luzon island as it headed in the general direction of China and Taiwan today.