CAIRO, Egypt -- A Nile River steamer carrying 627 passengers and crew caught fire and sank today in crocodile-infested waters behind the Aswan Dam, killing 48 people and leaving 269 passengers missing, police said.
Police said a blaze erupted in the engine room of the 10th of Ramadan before dawn and swept through the steamer, forcing passengers to leap overboard.
The gutted steamer, carrying 599 passengers and 28 crewmen from Aswan to northern Sudan, sank only few miles south of Abu Simble -- the site of two 2,000-year-old temples built in the face of a cliff by Ramses II.
Police said the bodies of 48 people were recovered, but that 310 people were rescued. They dismissed a report by the semi-official Middle East news agency that quoted the Aswan police chief as saying 500 people had been rescued.
The vessel went down in the waters behind the Aswan High Dam, where the world's largest artificial reservoir -- known as Dam Lake or Lake Nasser -- was built to hold the waters of the Nile.
The 12-mile-wide lake is infested by crocodiles, which are blocked from moving north by the dam.
Four helicopters criss-crossed the reservoir in search of the 269 missing from the wreck and about 50 rescue workers and frogmen were flown to the area to join in the search.
It was Egypt's worst shipping disaster since December 1976 when the Egyptian vessel Petra sank in the Red Sea and about 100 people drowned.
The spokesman said the passengers included 547 Sudanese and 48 Egyptians. Also on board were a Frenchman, a New Zealander, a Tanzanian and one person from Chad, the spokesman said. The crewmen all were Egyptian.
The vessel set sail from Aswan Monday afternoon for the 48-hour voyage to Wadi Halfa. It usually carries poor passengers who cannot afford to fly between Cairo and Khartoum. They travel by train to Aswan and from there board the vessel to Wadi Halfa, in the extreme north of Sudan.
The accident occurred only hours before Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Sudanese President Gaafar Numeiry inaugurated a joint Parliament of the Nile Valley in Khartoum.
The 120-seat house was one of several joint institutions established to coordinate the policies of the two countries over a 10-year-period in line with an 'integration' charter signed last October.