100 feared dead after boat sinks in C. Africa

File picture shows small boats on the Oubangui River in Bangui, Central African Republic (AFP Photo/Issouf Sanogo)

Bangui (Central African Republic) (AFP) - Nearly 100 people were on Thursday feared dead in the Central African Republic after a boat caught fire and sank on a river in the strife-torn country, officials said Thursday.

The barge sank on Monday after its motor exploded, starting a fire that quickly engulfed the vessel and prompting terrified passengers to jump overboard, officials told AFP.

The heavily laden vessel was carrying an estimated 100 people down the Oubangui River from the capital Bangui when the fire broke out near the village of Modale.

A naval official said at least 80 people were on board the New Jerusalem when it left Bangui, 125 kilometres (77 miles) upstream from where it came to grief.

"But others had probably been taken on during the voyage bringing the number of passengers to more than 100," he added.

Only one body has so far been found, he said, that of a "child who is being taken back to Bangui with his mother, one of the few survivors. It is hard to say how many people have died because there is no rescue team."

Joseph Tagbale, the mayor of the port district of Bangui, said it was difficult to estimate how many lives had been lost. "We are asking the authorities to search to see if there are any survivors."

Transitional authorities installed in January 2014 and led by interim President Catherine Samba-Panza apparently lack the manpower and appropriate infrastructure to help.

The interim regime took over from Michel Djotodia, a rebel leader who was placed in power in a March 2013 coup by mainly Muslim rebels, then stepped down under international pressure regarding atrocities by his forces.

Ongoing conflict along ethnic and religious lines has killed thousands, displaced about a quarter of the population of some 4.7 million and left vital infrastructure crippled or absent over much of the landlocked country, according to the United Nations and aid agencies.

Badly maintained boats often sink on the Oubangui, where safety regulations such as a total ban on navigation at night are rarely followed, leading to serious accidents.

Ageing barges are frequently overloaded with livestock and merchandise as well as people, both on the Oubangui and lesser waterways, such as the M'poko river south of Bangui, where at least 80 people were believed drowned in a ferry accident last September.

"The question we have to ask is how about 100 people can agree to use a vessel which can't be recommended?" national transport chief Silvere Yabada said after that disaster. "Central Africans should take care of themselves, protect their lives."

Yabada added that road usage can be equally dangerous, citing the example of "five or six people together riding a single motorbike" as well as vehicles with unstable loads.

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