Mon, Feb 06, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Ferry victims' families demand answers

DISTRAUGHT ANGER Protesters criticized the Egyptian president for not providing more information about 1,000 passengers still unaccounted for after the ferry tragedy


About 100 protesters shouted angrily at police and criticized Egypt's president yesterday, calling for more information about the 1,000 people still missing and presumed drowned since a ferry sank in the Red Sea. An Italian ship said it had pulled a handful of survivors from the water.

The demonstration outside the port of Safaga -- the ship's original destination from a port in Saudi Arabia -- came a day after protests turned violent on Saturday, with family members throwing stones at police and banging on the doors to the docks.

Yesterday, the demonstrators, who have been waiting in the streets outside Safaga port for almost two days, yelled: "Where is the president, where are our sons? Where are the bodies? We want to know the fate of the children."

"If you don't have the bodies, at least give us [death] certificates and let us go. You have been torturing us for days," shouted Heshmat Mohammed Hassan from Sohag, whose brother is still missing, as he stood in front of a line of policemen welding batons.

Omar Fouad, 31, also from Sohag and waiting to hear the fate of a cousin, said: "All that we want to know is if they are dead or alive. Every day they read the same list of names of survivors. They have been too cold about this."

A total of 379 passengers have been rescued and 136 bodies have been collected since the ship sank early on Friday, with rescue operations still going on, said Bakr el-Rashidi, the governor of Egypt's Red Sea province.

"What I am supposed to do for them?" he asked of family members. "We feel for them and we are announcing the information when we get it."

He said that 11 policemen had been injured by stones on Saturday.

An Italian ship had rescued seven Egyptians and taken in an unidentified body from the sea, and handed them to the Sharm el-Sheik port authority and another ship rescued two other survivors, said Said Abdel-Fattah, director of the South Sinai Medical Center. It was unclear if those were among the 379 passengers cited as rescued.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak flew to Hurghada, about 64km farther north, on Saturday and visited survivors in two hospitals. But television pictures of the visit, which normally would have carried sound of Mubarak's conversations, were silent.

While visitng the hospital, the president ordered that the families of each victim be paid US$5,200 in compensation and the survivors US$2,600 each. In a televised address, the president said, "We pray that God almighty may count [the victims] among his martyrs."

The tragedy struck a deep core of discontent among Egyptians, who are suffering from a considerable economic downturn and increased unemployment.

Tens of thousands of Egyptians work in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries, many of them from impoverished families in southern Egypt who spend years abroad to earn money. They often travel by ship to and from Saudi Arabia.

The Egyptian government's rescue effort got off to a slow start. Initial offers of help from the US and Britain were rejected, and four Egyptian rescue ships reached the scene only by Friday afternoon, about 10 hours after the ferry was believed to have capsized.

The series of tragic errors that led to the ship's sinking began when the crew decided to push across the Red Sea, despite a fire burning in the aging vessel's parking bay, survivors said Saturday. The Al-Salaam Boccaccio 98 had sailed only about 20 miles from the Saudi shore, but its crew instead tried to reach Egypt's shores 110 miles away.

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