26 missing after Tongan ferry sinks

NUKU'ALOFA: Twenty-six people remained unaccounted for more than 12 hours after an inter-island ferry sank near the Tongan capital Nuku'alofa, rescue officials said Thursday.

Initial reports said the ferry was carrying 75 people but this has since been updated to 79, of whom 53 have been rescued.

A spokesman for the New Zealand rescue centre, which is co-ordinating the search, said several vessels and an aircraft had been sent to the area where the Princess Ashika issued a mayday call about 11:00 pm on Wednesday (1100 GMT).

The vessel was heading from Nuku'alofa to Ha'afeva in the Nomuka Islands group and is believed to have sunk about 86 kilometres (53 miles) northeast of the capital.

"A trail of debris from the sunken vessel, stretching about eight nautical miles had been sighted in the area and the search vessels were targeting that area," search and rescue officer Mike Roberts said.

"So far, a total of 53 people have been picked up safe and well by rescue vessels, leaving 26 people unaccounted for."

It was not immediately known what caused the ferry to sink and conditions in the search area were good.

Tongan police commander Chris Kelly said all the passengers and crew found so far were alive.

"No bodies have been located at this point but there are still people missing," he said.

In addition to passengers, the vessel was also carrying cargo for the outer Tongan islands including a new ambulance and vehicles for the hospital in Vava'u, a spokesman for the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia said.

The inter-island ferry service is a lifeline for the widespread Tongan islands. The 34-year-old Princess Ashika was put into service earlier this year to replace the passenger ferry Olovaha, which was deemed no longer safe.

The vessel was to be a stop-gap measure until 2011 when a new ferry, currently under construction, is due to go into service.