13 Britons killed as Bahrain pleasure boat sinks

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The Independent Online

At least 13 Britons are among 57 people killed when a crowded pleasure boat sank off the coast of Bahrain, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw confirmed today.

The vessel, believed to have been carrying 150 passengers, capsized less than a mile off the coast last night.

Officials from the Bahrain Interior Ministry have said the death toll stands at 57, but it is expected to rise further.

Mr Straw, speaking at a joint press conference with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Blackburn, Lancashire, said: "I gather 50 poor souls have lost their lives, including at least 13 British citizens.

"We hear there may be one American citizen as well.

"We have responded very quickly. The embassy in Bahrain has moved into action and a rapid deployment team has already been sent from London to assist.

"We offer all the help we can to the Bahrain authorities."

A British Embassy spokeswoman later said she believed the sinking had claimed the lives of 12 British citizens and three others with dual nationality, but this had still to be confirmed.

The Foreign Office said the British Ambassador to Bahrain, Robin Lamb, was flying back to the island state from the UK where he has been attending a leadership conference.

Up to 63 people were rescued from the two-deck Arabic dhow, whose owners said it may have capsized because of overcrowding.

An Irish man is among those killed in the accident, the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin confirmed.

A spokeswoman said an Irish official was making his way to the region to give every possible assistance.

She added: "His family have been informed and at the moment one of our people from the Irish Embassy in Riyadh, which is our closest embassy to Bahrain, is flying to assist."

The passengers on the vessel were thought to be a mix of Bahrainis, other Gulf Arab nationals and Westerners celebrating the completion of part of the Bahrain World Trade Centre towers.

Construction firm Murray and Roberts, which organised the boat party, said four of its staff had been confirmed dead and six remained unaccounted for.

Chief executive Brian Bruce said the construction company has 25 employees in Bahrain, including 11 Britons.

Mr Bruce said managers had travelled from London to the island state to assist staff and families. Other staff members had also flown in from Dubai and Johannesburg.

He said: "We are deeply shocked by this tragedy. Our sympathy and condolences go out to all those who have been affected."

Bahrain's coastguard chief, Youssef al-Katem, said an investigation was under way, although it is understood weather conditions in the area were not to blame.

Mr al-Katem added that there were 150 guests at the dinner party aboard the boat while it was docked. Up to 20 of them were understood to have left before it sailed.

The boat's owner, Isa Al Qobaisi, told Bahrain's Gulf Daily News newspaper that its captain did not want to take the vessel out to sea as it only had a capacity for 100 passengers.

The pleasure boat reportedly set sail from the Marina Club in Manama, Bahrain's capital, at 8pm for a two-hour cruise around the bay.

A Foreign Office spokesman said the accident happened as it returned to the port of Al Muharraq, in the far north-east corner of the island state.

During the rescue operation US helicopters and divers helped Bahrain coastguards search the water for survivors.

Later television footage showed the capsized boat with rescue workers walking on its brown hull and others taking bodies wrapped in white sheets off a small dinghy.

A Foreign Office spokesman said the injured were taken to the Salmaniya Medical Centre in Manama.

Mazeeha Saeed, of newspaper Al-Watan, said survivors could still be seen in the water, clinging to pieces of wood, when she arrived at the scene.

She said: "Survivors were trying to swim or holding on to a piece of wood or something to save themselves."

People who had been on the pleasure boat told her the accident happened without warning.

"They don't know how it happened because it happened in seconds," she said. "There was not anything that came up that would make them expect that this was going to happen."

Ms Saeed said an investigation committee has been set up and officials have begun interviewing the captain, crew members and survivors.

She said: "Some people are saying it was due to overweight on the ferry and others say the weather. There were strong winds."

A Foreign Office spokesman later confirmed that 12 Britons and three dual nationals had died in the sinking and stated there may be further British casualties.

He added: "There are still other people unaccounted for, who may include British people."

The spokesman said the Bahrain Ministry of Interior had confirmed 57 people had died and that 67 were rescued.

Some had been treated for minor injuries and allowed home but it was not clear if any casualties remained in hospital.

Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells, who is in the Middle East on official business, is travelling to Bahrain, the spokesman added.

A Foreign Office rapid deployment team is also on its way to the island state to support Embassy staff and to offer help to survivors and their relatives.

Construction firm Murray & Roberts said later, in a statement published on its website, that 15 of its staff were safe but 10 others had died in the sinking.

These were four South Africans, three Britons, two Indian nationals and one from Pakistan.

Brian Bruce, the company's chief executive, said: "We have been advised that excluding crew, approximately 120 people from Murray & Roberts and its partner Nass, the professional design team and various subcontractors were on board the ferry."

He said a number of spouses and partners were included in the group.

Raymond Austin, 50, who works for a concrete company, said he left the boat before it set off on its pleasure trip because he was worried about overcrowding, the Evening Standard in London reported.

He telephoned his daughter Rebecca at their home in Kent to tell her he was well but "shaken up and distraught".