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Hundreds drowned in Haiti disaster

IN ONE of the worst sea disasters in recent history, many hundreds, and possibly as many as 1,800 Haitians are feared drowned after an overloaded passenger ferry bound for the capital, Port-au-Prince, capsized and sank in a storm off southern Haiti early on Wednesday.

So poor are communications in the region that no word of the disaster reached Port-au-Prince until yesterday. The first clue to the sinking came as bodies were washed up on beaches and survivors - some 285 thus far - swam ashore some 60 miles to the west of the capital.

As the carcasses of drowned cattle floated to the surface, some shipwrecked passengers used them as rafts, while others clung to bags of coconuts that floated off the ship, survivors said.

According to Haitian port authority officials, 800 tickets for the rickety ferry Neptune had been sold before it left the agricultural centre of Jeremie loaded with peasants and poor farmers carrying fruit, farm animals and other produce to sell in Port-au-Prince.

But the boat's captain, who managed to swim to safety along with a group of 60 other passengers, told a Haitian radio station that 1,500 people were packed on board the 150-ft Neptune, invariably jammed to overflowing when it made its regular 180-mile run along the northern coast of Haiti's southern peninsula. Other reports suggested that as many as 2,000 were on board.

'We may never know exactly how many there were on the ferry,' said Commander Larry Mizell of the US Coast Guard in Miami, which keeps close watch on boat traffic around Haiti. 'These boats don't keep passenger lists and they just cram on as many people as they can to make money.'

By a cruel stroke, this latest calamity to overtake the blighted and impoverished Caribbean country had nothing to do with the attempts of Haitians to make the perilous 600-mile journey by sea to the US, an unknown number of whom have died in shipwrecks.

Indeed, all ferry traffic along Haiti's coasts had been halted for a week in December for fear that would-be refugees would hijack the vessels and divert them to Florida. But normal traffic resumed after Bill Clinton went back on campaign pledges and made clear that he would continue George Bush's tough policy of repatriating refugees, for screening on Haiti itself.

According to survivors, the disaster came about when many of those on board panicked as the triple-decked Neptune began to roll in the rain and heavy winds of the storm. At that point the ferry's top deck simply caved in, causing the ship to sink.

Yesterday two Haitian navy ships were scouring nearby waters for further survivors, while the US Coast Guard dispatched helicopters, a small jet and two patrol vessels to aid the search. Commander Mizell said last night that there was no sign of the vessel, 'and there's no sign of any other survivors'.

Relatives of those on board were journeying yesterday to the coastal site of the sinking to wait for news of their loved ones. Destina Momrosier, a seamstress in Port-au-Prince, said her brother, a construction worker, Emmanuel Erelien, and a cousin were on board the Neptune when it left for the capital late on Tuesday from Jeremie, 180 miles to the west. Ms Momrosier, a native of Jeremie, said she had taken the boat several times, usually with 500 to 600 other passengers, but she said as many as 1,500 could probably fit aboard.

If the figures circulating are correct, this would be the most deadly ferry accident in the world since December 1987, when a ferry collided with a tanker in the Philippines, and 1,749 passengers drowned.

MIAMI - An armed man who hijacked a DC-3 in Haiti yesterday and ordered the pilot to fly to Miami surrendered shortly after the plane landed in the US, AFP reports.

(Photograph omitted)