At least seven missing after ship sinks off Liberian coast

MONROVIA, July 18 (Reuters) - At least seven people are missing after a cargo ship that had been barred from sailing sank off the coast of Liberia, the country's Maritime Commissioner said on Sunday.

The Liberian-registered Niko Ivanka left the capital Monrovia on Saturday morning for a port in the country's south, despite being under a Liberia Maritime Authority detention order for failing to meet basic safety requirements.

The vessel sent out a distress signal that afternoon notifying the coast guard that it had taken on water, Maritime Commissioner Eugene Nagbe told a news conference. By the time authorities arrived, it had already partially sunk.

"We are commissioning an investigation into how a vessel that was detained for failure to meet rudimentary safety requirements managed to get on the sea with passengers and cargo," Nagbe said.

"But that investigation is subsidiary to the ongoing search and rescue effort," he added.

The vessel's owner, a Chinese national, was arrested on Sunday afternoon and is now in police custody, Nagbe told Reuters.

The search continued on Sunday afternoon as teams from Liberia's coast guard scoped nearby shores and riverbanks in collaboration with a ship from anti-whaling organization Sea Shepherd, Nagbe said.

The precise number of missing passengers remains unknown, Deputy Information Minister Jarlaywah Tonpoe told Reuters.

The ship's manifest showed 18 people on board at the time of departure but authorities suspect that more could have been on board, given that the vessel was not licensed to carry passengers in the first place, Tonpoe said.

Among those listed on the manifest was a Swedish captain, a Chinese crew member, and nine members of West Africa's regional school examinations body.

"The vessel was not a passenger-authorized vessel and yet it had passengers on board," Tonpoe said. "So in the coming days, investigation will establish how many people were on board."

Reporting by Alphonso Toweh and Lucinda Rouse; Writing by Cooper Inveen; Editing by Hugh Lawson

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