Congo: 70 dead, 200 missing in 2 boat capsizes

Two boats capsized over the weekend in separate incidents on Congo's vast rivers, leaving 70 people dead and 200 others feared dead, and both vessels were heavily loaded and operating with few safety measures, officials said. Early on Saturday, a boat on a river in northwest Equateur Province hit a rock and capsized, provincial spokeswoman Ebale Engumba said on Sunday. She said more than 70 people are believed dead among 100 estimated passengers. She said officials are investigating why the boat was traveling through the darkness without a light. In a separate incident in Kasai Occidental Province, 200 people were feared dead after a boat loaded with passengers and fuel drums caught fire and capsized in southern Congo, a survivor said on Sunday. Another survivor confirmed the account and said local fishermen refused to help drowning passengers who jumped off the crowded boat. The incident in southern Congo would be the deadliest boat accident in the Central African nation this year, and among the worst in Africa this year. The boats that traverse Congo's rivers are often in poor repair and filled beyond capacity. The industry is not well-regulated and boat operators are known to fill boats to dangerous levels. In the first incident in northwest Congo, Engumba said officials think the boat's lack of lighting was responsible. "We are going to arrest people involved who are in charge of regulating the boat's movement who failed to stop that boat from traveling at night," she said. In the second incident, survivors said the boat was overloaded with people and goods. A local official said two of the boat's crew were arrested but both refused to say how many people were aboard. The official said the passenger manifest apparently vanished in the fire. Fabrice Muamba, who said he was on the boat when it caught fire on Saturday night on the Kasai River, said he thought only 15 of the more than 200 people he thought were aboard were able to swim to safety. He said passengers began to jump overboard when the engine caught fire as it passed the remote village of Mbendayi, some 70 kilometers from the town of Tshikapa, which is north of Congo's border with Angola. Another survivor, a woman named Romaine Mishondo, said the boat was already packed with "hundreds" of passengers when it stopped some 10 minutes before the fire to pick up more people. She said she did not know exactly how many people were aboard, but said the boat was so crowded it reminded her of "a whole market in the village full of people."

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