Sierra Leone ends boat rescue, dozens missing

Fri Sep 11, 2009 2:31pm EDT

* Rescue operation ends after shipwreck

* 90 bodies found, more feared dead

* Police vow stricter safety measures



By Christo Johnson FREETOWN, Sept 11 (Reuters) - Authorities in Sierra Leone are shutting down an operation to rescue survivors of a shipwreck that has killed 90 and left well over 100 missing, presumed dead, a police officer said on Friday.

The boat, which officials believe was heavily loaded with goods and at least 250 people, capsized in a storm on Tuesday, sparking calls for better safety after just 40 of the passengers appear to have survived the accident.

"We are no longer actively engaged in the rescue exercise as we now believe that the rest of the passengers onboard the boat have drowned," Lt Mohamed Suma, head of the naval wing leading the search operation, told Reuters on Friday.

Suma said 90 bodies had been buried, 30 of which had to be put in mass grave as they were unrecognisable.

"What we are now doing as (a) search party is to see how (many) of the remaining corpses we can get out of the sea," he added.

The exact number of passengers on the boat, which was travelling between two coastal villages, is not known as the captain picked up additional passengers after completing a manifest that showed he already had 200 people onboard.

Boat, car and rail accidents are frequent in West Africa, a poor region that has weak infrastructure, and overloading is often to blame.

The international community has offered assistance to the government in tackling the accident but Suma said stricter measures would be put in place to prevent others.

Passenger boats that did not have life jackets, the necessary communications devices and a proper manifest would be prevented from plying Sierra Leone's waters and their captains arrested, he said. (Reporting by Christo Johnson; Writing by David Lewis)