Boat sinks, dozens missing

MANILA: Dozens of people were missing Thursday after two boats collided in Manila Bay during the busy Christmas rush, the latest disaster to hit the Philippines in a year marked by tragedy.

Rescuers were searching for 27 people who had been aboard the wooden-hulled Catalyn B when it rammed into a fishing boat and sank before dawn, a coastguard spokesman said.

An emergency operation in the busy waterway swung into action, saving 46 people over the next five hours, but many more are still missing.

An updated coastguard report said 27 others are unaccounted for among the 73 known to be aboard.

The other vessel -- a fishing boat named Nathalia -- was damaged but was afloat, coastguard spokesman Commander Armando Balilo told local radio. Earlier coastguard reports had said both vessels had sunk and had put the number missing at 37.

"Some of those rescued are now aboard the Nathalia," Balilo told the broadcaster.

The collision occurred at 2:25am (1825 GMT Wednesday) as the passenger vessel was making its way to Lubang island southeast of Manila, he added.

A coastguard statement said three of its vessels were taking part in the search for the 27 missing, while eight other ships had diverted from their course and were en route to the area to join the rescue.

A coastguard plane was also dispatched to scan the waters for survivors, it added.

Ferries form the backbone of mass transport in the archipelago nation of 92 million people.

Officials say bad weather, poor maintenance, overcrowding of vessels and lax enforcement of regulations have contributed to disasters, and water voyages in the busy Christmas period are particularly fraught with danger.

The world's deadliest peacetime maritime disaster occurred south of Manila in 1987 when a ferry laden with Christmas holidaymakers collided with a small oil tanker, killing more than 4,000 people.

In June 2008 another ferry tipped over during a typhoon off the central island of Sibuyan, leaving almost 800 dead.

A series of tragedies have struck the Philippines over recent months.

In September, the first of two powerful tropical storms battered the nation, claiming more than 1,000 lives and wreaking devastation across large swathes of the country.

In November, 57 people were slain in an election-linked massacre in a lawless region in the country's south.

And more than 47,000 people are facing Christmas in evacuation camps and temporary accommodation around Mount Mayon, south of Manila, as the rumbling volcano threatens a violent eruption.