Death toll in Thai tourist boat disaster rises to 44

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Rescue workers pulled three more bodies from the Andaman Sea on Tuesday as authorities and relatives began identifying more than 40 dead from a boat accident near Thailand’s holiday island of Phuket last week.

The Phoenix tourist boat went down in rough seas on Thursday with 101 people on board, including 89 tourists, all but two of them from China, during an outing to a small island. Twelve Thai crew were also on board.

“Three more bodies were found. One found near Phi Phi island,” Somnuek Prempramote, commander of Naval Area 3, told reporters on Phuket, a popular holiday destination off Thailand’s west coast.

Forty-four people have been confirmed dead, officials said on Tuesday, making it Thailand’s worst tourist-related disaster in years and underscoring safety concerns about the industry.

There were 54 survivors and the search for three missing people would continue if the weather allowed, Somnuek said.

“The wind is quite strong,” said Somnuek, adding that plans to lift the sunken vessel were on hold.

“On moving the boat to see whether there are bodies underneath ... this task will need to be assessed to see if it affects evidence in this case. We will continue to consider this option,” he said.

Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan apologized for comments he made on Monday blaming Chinese tour operators for the deaths because they did not respect Thai safety rules.

Prawit “sends his condolences and apologizes to the Chinese people,” defense ministry spokesman Kongcheep Tantravanich told reporters.

Two other boats capsized in the same area on Thursday but their passengers were brought safely to shore.

The captain of the Phoenix has been charged with negligence causing death, police said. He has denied the charges.

More than 50 Chinese families have arrived in Phuket to identify the bodies of relatives and take care of survivors, Thai media reported on Monday.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha visited Phuket on Thursday and comforted some of the relatives.

Reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Panarat Thepgumpanat, Pracha Hariraksapitak and Chayut Setboonsarng; Editing by Paul Tait and Darren Schuettler