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Gajaria (Bangladesh) (AFP) – A heavily-laden ferry capsized and sank in central Bangladesh on Thursday after being caught in a storm, leaving at least 12 people dead and hundreds more missing, police and officials said.

Survivors of what is the latest in a string of ferry disasters to blight Bangladesh said the vessel began to sway when the storm hit, finally tipping over and sinking in minutes, giving passengers little time to leap to safety.

The exact number of passengers was not immediately known. It is common for ferries to carry many more than their official limit.

“We are receiving confusing figures on how many passengers were on board when it sank, but the number could range from 200 to 350,” said district government administrator Saiful Hasan, who is coordinating the rescue effort.

“The toll now stands at 12,” he said of the accident on the river Meghna in Munshiganj district, some 30 miles south of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka.

Local police chief Ferdous Ahmed also confirmed the recovery of the bodies, which included at least two women and one child.

The double-decker vessel was travelling to the southern district of Shariatpur from Dhaka when it encountered problems and sank in the mid-afternoon, according to the police.

“Around 20-30 people managed to swim to safety when the boat went down,” Ahmed told AFP.

Rescue coordinator Hasan told AFP that a navy ship, a salvage vessel and about a dozen speedboats had reached the spot. Fire service divers had located the sunken ferry and were attempting to recover bodies as darkness fell.

The width of the river, the depth of the water and the strong currents were hampering rescuers’ efforts to retrieve the wreckage, Hasan said.

Hundreds of distraught relatives gathered on the banks of the river as the bodies were laid in lines in order to be identified.

Others accompanied rescuers on boats as they searched for the missing passengers.

25-year-old Sumon, who only uses one name, said his uncle and teenage cousin were both missing.

“They were travelling home from Dhaka to our village,” Sumon told AFP.

The local online newspaper Banglanews24.com quoted a survivor of the accident, Abdur Razzaq, as saying that the boat was hit by the storm suddenly and sank in a matter of minutes.

Fire service officer Nurul Alam, who was taking part in the rescue effort, told AFP: “I fear there are many more bodies trapped inside the vessel.”

Ferry accidents are common in Bangladesh, one of Asia’s poorest nations which is crisscrossed with more than 230 rivers.

Experts blame poorly maintained vessels, flaws in design and overcrowding for most of the tragedies.

Storms known locally as Kalboishakhi often hit Bangladesh during the early summer months in the lead-up to the monsoon, which generally begins in the first week of June.

Boats are the main form of travel in much of Bangladesh’s remote rural areas, especially in the southern and northeastern regions.

Some 150 people were killed in the same district in March 2012 after a overcrowded ferry carrying about 200 passengers sank after being hit by an oil barge in the dead of night.

In 2011, 32 people were killed after a passenger vessel sank in the same river in the same district after colliding with a cargo ship.

At least 85 people drowned in 2009 when an overloaded triple-decker ferry capsized off Bhola Island in the country’s south.

Naval officials have said more than 95 percent of Bangladesh’s hundreds of thousands of small and medium-sized boats do not meet minimum safety regulations.

Photo via AFP

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