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Hundreds drown as Haitian ferry capsizes

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- A ferry carrying at least 800 people, many of them rural peasants carrying farm produce to the capital, capsized during stormy weather off the western coast of Haiti, leaving hundreds of people missing and feared dead, authorities said.

A Coast Guard spokesman in Miami said Thursday five Coast Guard cutters and several Coast Guard aircraft searched for survivors Thursday and more than 100 bodies were found among an oil slick 2 miles northeast of Petit Goave.

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More than 100 other bodies reportedly washed ashore, but some passengers survived the accident early Wednesday by swimming to nearby coastal areas.

The Haitian Red Cross said at least 245 survivors had been found: 45 in Leogane, located about 20 miles south of Port-Au-Prince; 125 in Miragoane, about 60 miles south of the capital; and 75 in Petit Goave between the two other cities.

The Red Cross said some of the survivors were not counted as they did not seek help.

Haitian radio stations reported that between 1,000 and 2,000 people were on board the ferry Neptune when it sank while going from the port town of Jeremie to the capital and it is feared that most have drowned.

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Survivors said they held on to chunks of wood and other debris in order to stay afloat. Among the cargo on the ferry were at least several cows.

The boat capsized at about 1 a.m. Wednesday, Coast Guard spokesman Steve Sapp said. He said the Coast Guard learned of the accident that night and received confirmation Thursday morning.

The U.S. Coast Guard said crewmen aboard one of its planes spotted bodies and debris along the shore about 2 miles northeast of Petit Goave, and sent the cutter Padre to investigate. The Padre arrived about 12:35 p.m. Thursday and its crewmen began counting the bodies.

'Right now they're at about 100-plus and still counting,' said Petty Officer Simone Adair. 'They will assist the Haitian government in recovering the bodies. They're still searching the area for others.'

She said the bodies would be taken aboard the Padre and three other cutters that are on the way to the scene.

One survivor told United Press International she was lucky to find a life preserver in the water. 'God saved my life,' Lausalle Auguste, 20, said.

Although the cause of the accident is still unknown, survivors said it was raining and seas were rough. Many of the passengers moved from the left to the right-hand side of the ship to shelter from the rain, possibly causing the craft to list, they said.

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A survivor, Benjamin Sinclair, told local Radio Metropole that bad weather had put the boat in trouble.

'We left Jeremie Tuesday night without problem,' said Sinclair, who the station apparently erroneously identified as the captain of the ferry. Authorities identified the captain as Julio Antoine, who also survived.

'When we arrived in Petit Goave, it was raining and there was heavy wind,' Sinclair said. 'All the people panicked. They all went to the right side which began to sink. Then water poured in. And all the boat went into the sea.'

Sinclair said he did not know the exact number of the passengers, 'but I could say that there were many and few of us were able to swim.'

A reporter for Radio Metropole said the boat 'was not in good shape. ' The passengers were mainly rural peasants traveling to Port-au-Prince to sell agricultural goods.

Hundreds of people gathered in the port town of Jeremie looking for information about relatives. Many were upset and in tears, Radio Metropole reported.

The ferry was full of poor peasants who paid $7 for the twice-a-week journey as the roads between the two cities are poor.

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Roland Dorancy, director of the Haitian refugee center in Miami, said he understood from sources in Haiti that the capacity of the Neptune was 800, but it was overbooked and there were 1,000 aboard.

She said it was possible the ferry was overbooked intentionally to scare Haitians from trying to journey to the United States by showing them the dangers of the sea.

'Anything is possible in Haiti,' she said.

In Port-Au-Prince, the international observer mission representing the United Nations and the Organizations of American States expressed regret over the accident, as did military-backed Prime Minister Marc Bazin.

Tens of thousands of Haitians have tried to flee their homeland for the United States since the military ousted the democratically-elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in September 1990. But the ferry accident was not related to that exodus.

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