Hundreds feared dead after ferry sinks in storm

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A raging storm hampered efforts to rescue survivors after an Indonesian ferry carrying at least 600 passengers sank in the Java Sea, officials said today.

Slamet Bustam, an official at Semarang port, said waves of up 5 meters had crashed over the deck of the Senopati at around midnight Friday in the final leg of its 48-hour journey from the northern island of Borneo to the main island of Java.

"We are afraid many have died," Bustam told The Associated Press.

In a final radio contact, the captain informed port authorities that the ship was severely damaged and capsizing, said local navy commander Col. Yan Simamora.

Worried family members gathered at the main office of ferry operator PT Prima Fista, weeping and demanding details about the fate of their loved ones.

"I am waiting for my mother, auntie, sister and nephew who were on their way to celebrate New Year's Eve at my house," said Yulis, 25, who like many Indonesians uses one name.

Rescuers found 26 survivors, some in a drifting lifeboat, and took them to safety. Among them was a 7-year-old boy in a life vest who was being treated at a hospital.

Two naval ships were searching the area, but had found nothing because of poor visibility. Local fishermen were reportedly too scared to head out into the stormy seas.

The ferry ran into trouble around 40 kilometers (24 miles) off Mandalika island, some 300 kilometers (around 190 miles) northeast of the capital, Jakarta, while en route to Semarang on Central Java from the port of Kumai on Borneo island.

Transport Minister Hatta Radjasa put the number of passengers at 542, citing the passenger manifest. However, ships in Indonesia often carry far more passengers than recorded, making it hard for authorities to say with accuracy how many people were onboard.

Local media reports put the number of passengers at between 200 and 800.

Seasonal storms have wrought havoc across Indonesia in recent days, triggering flash floods and landslides that have killed more than 145 people and driven hundreds of thousands from their homes on Sumatra island.

Earlier Friday, a different vessel carrying around 100 people capsized in bad weather off the coast of northwestern Sumatra, killing 31, Radjasa said.

Ferries are a main source of transportation in Indonesia, a vast archipelago of more than 17,000 islands with a population of 220 million.