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Death toll rises to 32 in Mali river boat disaster

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

The death toll from one of the worst ever river boat sinkings in Mali has jumped to 32, including many young children, local officials and survivors said Sunday.

Rescuers were still hunting along the Niger river for the missing after the tragedy struck overnight Friday in central Mali, while survivors hailed local villagers for preventing an even heavier death toll.

"Until now, 32 bodies have been recovered but there are still people in the water we are searching for," said Ibrahim Waigalo, an advisor in the village of Koubi near the site of the accident.

The dugout boat, carrying scores of people and a large amount of merchandise, broke up on the Niger near Koubi, which lies around 70 kilometres (40 miles) north of the central city of Mopti.

Local officials had said on Saturday that 20 people had perished, including 15 children, while 23 were missing and 210 survived.

It is one of the deadliest river disasters in Mali, according to the local authorities. While accidents involving the rudimentary canoes are frequent, Mopti governor Ibrahima Hama Traore said the human loss this time was exceptional.

"It was the residents of Koubi who saved us. It is thanks to them that there are not even more dead," said Seydou Maiga, a teacher who survived the tragedy.

"There were lots of women and children. Yesterday we buried 13 children, it was terrible," he added.

Maiga said the boat, which was en route from Mopti to the fabled desert trading city of Timbuktu over 700 kilometres (400 miles) away, was overcrowded.

He said 218 people had bought tickets for the boat trip. "But there were many more than that on board, I don't know how many, perhaps 300 as there were people who hadn't bought tickets."

An AFP journalist in Koubi saw the bodies of a woman and a young girl pulled from the Niger, while the deputy mayor of the neighbouring village of Konna -- about 20 kilometres away -- said 10 bodies had been recovered there.

"Unfortunately it is certain that other bodies will be found," said the official, Demba Samouka.

The exact causes of the incident were not yet clear but one survivor said it came just after the upper deck of the boat collapsed.

"The boat was overloaded... When we realised the roof was giving in, we were asked to get off... Minutes later, the boat tilted left, then right and eventually capsized," said Moustapha Ousmane Maiga.

Rudimentary canoes are the main means of transport for residents of Mali's central and northern regions travelling to the towns dotting the Niger, the main river in west Africa.

Often powered by a van motor, they can sometimes carry tonnes of merchandise as well as over 100 passengers.

The Niger is more than 4,100 kilometres (2,500 miles) long and connects landlocked Mali's arid north to the more fertile south.

Speaking to AFP on the site of the disaster Sunday, Mariam Hacko said she had travelled all the way from the capital Bamako to look for her relatives.,

She found her brother alive but not his wife and godchild.

Hacko complained that the emergency teams had to drive more than 400 kilometres (250 miles) and arrived on the scene with no equipment.

"The villagers on the other hand are here, they are doing everything. The burials, the rescue effort, they are in charge of everything."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/131013/death-toll-rises-32-mali-river-boat-disaster-0