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September 20, 2017

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Ferry boat sinks in Tonga; dozens missing, feared dead

NUKU'ALOFA, Tonga -- An overnight ferry packed with sleeping passengers flipped in heavy seas near the Pacific island nation of Tonga, leaving more than 30 people missing and feared dead, officials said Thursday.

Rescuers who plucked more than 50 survivors from the water were hopeful of finding more clinging to wreckage strewn over a wide area, but positive signs were fading after a full day's searching.

Authorities could not immediately say exactly how many people were aboard the ferry when it sank, but said it could be as many as 96 — raising the possible number of missing to more than 40.

Only two deaths were confirmed Thursday, and New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully said one was a British citizen who had a New Zealand driver's license on him. A Tongan official had earlier identified the dead man as from New Zealand.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, hosting a summit of South Pacific leaders, indicated the toll was expected to rise much higher.

"There has been considerable loss of life," Rudd said in comments wrapping up the meeting in Cairns, northern Australia. "Our thoughts and our prayers are with the families of those that have been affected by this great tragedy."

Many of those unaccounted for were women and children who may have been trapped below decks when the Princess Ashika overturned around midnight Wednesday some 55 miles (85 kilometers) northeast of the capital, Nuku'alofa, officials and a witness said.

The ferry was on its way from Nuku'alofa to outlying islands in Tonga's north. It sank in 115 feet (35 meters) of water in a location that made rescue efforts difficult, Tongan Police Commander Chris Kelly said.

Tongan Transport Minister Paul Karalus said 86 passengers and crew were on board the ferry, raising a figure given earlier by New Zealand officials involved in the search. Tongan police assistant commander Tupou Niua said 96 people were on a list provided by the ferry operator, Shipping Corp. of Polynesia.

Karalus said 33 people were listed as missing, but this could be off "by one or two" because of difficulties reconciling passenger lists with names that survivors had given to authorities.

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