Honduran families receive bodies of sunk fishing boat victims

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A dozen bodies have so far been handed over to relatives

Families of the 27 people who died after a Honduran fishing boat sank have started receiving the bodies of their relatives, as the country's president ordered a probe into the incident.

The vessel sank on Wednesday in the remote eastern Mosquitia region after heading out to sea when a seasonal ban on lobster fishing was lifted.

"We feel deep regret" over the drownings, President Juan Orlando Hernande wrote on his official Twitter account Thursday. "We stand in solidarity with the families," adding he had demanded an investigation.

Autopsies were being carried out in an improvised morgue on a sandbar off the country's east coast. A dozen bodies have so far been handed over to relatives, according to an AFP photographer.

One survivor, 30-year-old Anderson Flores, said his cousin's remains had been identified but had not yet been buried.

He told AFP that before the fishing vessel went under "we were sleeping in the cabins when we felt the boat turning around, then it started sinking quickly."

Flores added he and eight others managed to detach a boat from the main ship, then waited for five hours before being rescued.

The Directorate of Forensic Medicine said a team of nine experts had been sent to the area to help recover and identify the victims.

Ninety-one people were on the 70-tonne vessel when it set sail from Cabo Gracias a Dios on the country's easternmost point bordering Nicaragua, naval authorities said.

The ship sank near Cayo Gorda, a tiny island just northeast of their point of departure.

Fifty-five people were rescued but nine are still missing.

"It is clear that the tragedy happened because the boat was overloaded," said local journalist Jacinto Molina.

The region is one of Honduras' poorest -- accessible only by sea or plane -- and lobster fishing is an important source of income.

Merchant Marine director Juan Carlos Rivera said authorities have suspended permits for up to three years for vessels whose owners carry too many fishermen.

"The boats only have a capacity for 30 or 40 people but they overload them by double," said Molina.

Lobster fishing is risky and each diver earns up to $1,250 a trip, while crew on the ship get around $600, he added.

"It's good income in a country where there is no money," said Molina, adding many divers suffer debilitating injuries from swimming too deep or staying underwater too long to collect lobsters.