Two dead, 28 missing in Gabon ferry accident: port official

Rescue vessels were hunting for survivors on Thursday after a small ferry sank off the Gabonese coast, leaving two people dead and 28 missing, officials said.

The Esther Miracle ferry was on an overnight trip from the capital Libreville to the oil city of Port-Gentil with 151 passengers and crew onboard, they said.

Between 3:00 am (0200 GMT) and 4:00 am, the vessel reported a "water intrusion" that "led to a loss of control," its owner, Royal Cost Marine (RCM), said on Facebook.

Deputy Transport Minister Eric Joel Bekale, in a video posted on Facebook, said the ferry sank "at around 3:58 am off Libreville."

"At the present moment, 121 people have been saved, and sadly two people have died," he said.

The two comprised an adult and a baby, RCM said.

A port official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said 28 people were unaccounted for.

"The search (for survivors) is continuing but if at nightfall we don't find anyone, we will sadly have to consider the strong probability that those missing have died," said public prosecutor Andre Patrick Roponat.

The accident happened close to shore, near a bay on which Libreville is located, at a point where the water is shallow but currents are very strong.

A fleet of ambulances were deployed alongside a fire truck and a large tent on a jetty in Port Mole, the vessel's departure point, and motorised canoes, barges and naval vessels brought in survivors, an AFP reporter said.

Prime Minister Alain-Claude Bilie-By-Nze and Interior Minister Lambert Noel-Matha went to the scene.

- 'Sinking' -

A young woman was taken to an ambulance on a stretcher, covered in a survival blanket, while a fireman brought in a baby, also wrapped up.

Some survivors disembarked from an oil company's supply barge, which had taken part in the rescue operation, as a crowd applauded.

Some of the passengers gathered on the quayside and knelt in prayer.

"Lord God, you saved us from the waters, we will make sacrifices to you, thank you" said one survivor.

There was heart-wrenching testimony from loved ones waiting at the quayside.

"I have two relatives, my cousin and his wife, who were on the boat. I got a phone call at around 3:00 am and they said they were sinking," one woman told AFP.

"My daughter called me in the middle of the night to say that something was going on," said a man in his fifties.

"She said, 'Dad, we're sinking'," and then there was no more" he explained, desperately looking for signs she could still be alive.

"At 4:00 am, a friend who's in the police called me to say that he had spoken on the phone to my son and one of his friends, who told them they were going down," said Jean-Felix Moungonga.

"They told me there were lots of survivors, but I will only be reassured when I see my son with my own eyes."

One of the survivors, Wilfrid Ngomo, said: "Not a single crewmember gave us instructions on how to evacuate".

"There was an elderly couple in front of me and I don't think they got out," he said. "The woman was blind."

Roponat, the prosecutor, said an inquiry had been opened to see whether negligence, poor maintenance or "factors beyond human control" were the cause.

"We do not have any evidence one way or another" at the moment, he told AFP.