CAIRO: Alongside an official government investigation, local human rights groups have launched a parallel inquiry into the circumstances under which a ferry sank in the Red Sea on Feb. 3.
We ve sent a delegation to the ports of Safaga and Hurghada to investigate the incident and question those responsible, said Tarek Zaghloul of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. They re expected back in two days with their findings.
The Al-Salam Bocaccio 89 was carrying 1,414 passengers, mostly Egyptian migrant workers, from the Saudi town of Duba to the Egyptian port of Safaga when it sank. So far, at least 448 survivors have been rescued and 245 bodies recovered.
It was reported on Tuesday that the owners of the boat did not report the sinking of the ferry for nearly six hours after the tragedy happened. Some survivors said they had spent at least 10 to 12 hours in the sea before being rescued. Others said they waited up to 20 hours to be saved.
Saudi Arabia is home to the largest expatriate Egyptian population in the Arab world. According to government figures, Egyptian nationals working in the kingdom remit between $150 and $200 million back home every quarter.
Official accounts of the accident state that the Bocaccio 89 sank after a fire broke out. According to some reports, the ship s captain initially refused to turn back to the port of departure despite the fire.
Relatives of hundreds of missing passengers have been in the port of Safaga, some 500 km southeast of Cairo, since the disaster, awaiting information on the fate of loved ones. On Feb. 6, angry crowds attacked the offices of the Al-Salam Maritime Company, which owned the vessel, breaking furniture and setting fires.
According to the Feb. 7 edition of state daily Al-Ahram, Red Sea Provincial Governor Abu Bakr Al-Rashidi announced the establishment of an international committee for investigating the circumstances and reasons for the accident .
The paper, however, offered no additional details.
Officials at Safaga port and the Ministry of Transportation were unavailable for comment on the subject.
Zaghloul noted that, while the state prosecutor had announced an official investigation into the affair, few details had been forthcoming.
The particulars of the case will emerge from the prosecutor s office only after it has concluded its investigation, he said.
The Civil Observatory for Human Rights (COHR), a recently established NGO, called on Cairo to approach the issue with a greater degree of transparency.
We demand the government provide necessary aid to victims and families and announce all available information about bodies recovered, read a COHR statement. The organization further urged the government to inspect safety and security standards on all ferries and ships in Egyptian ports.
While some officials have suggested the ship may not have been seaworthy, the owner of Al-Salam Maritime insisted in statements to the press that it had passed recent inspections.
There were suggestions of negligence on the part of the ship s captain, who didn t turn the ship around, said Zaghloul. But nothing can be confirmed before the conclusion of our investigation.
The COHR statement suggested that the ship s captain and crew were merely serving as scapegoats for the disaster, while the issue of the ferry being run-down and lacking basic safety features was being avoided.
The rights group went on to note: Al-Salam has already received immense amounts of compensation from insurance companies for two previous sinkings.
On Tuesday, the state press reported that Minister of Transportation Mohamed Mansour had announced that all passenger ships would henceforth be subject to inspection before departing from Egyptian ports. IRIN