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Rescue operation continues for sunken ferry Princess Ashika

Sydney: Navy divers from New Zealand and Australia have been asked to come into Tonga to reach the sunken ferry MV Princess Ashika that is lying in over 36m (100 feet) of water, possibly holding the bodies of dozens of trapped victims, writes newsite Matangi Tonga Online. Local news reports indicate that 53 of the 117 passengers onboard the Shikoku Dockyard- built vessel at the time of the incident have been rescued so far. It is believed that many of the 62 known to be missing may be trapped inside the vessel and there have been three confirmed casualties to date.

Tonga Police Commander Chris Kelley said this morning that assistance in reaching the vessel has been requested from New Zealand and Australia because the Tonga Defence Services and police do not have the capacity to reach that depth.

"A major issue is that vessel is in 36 metres of water - that's over 100 feet, and we don't have the capability to get to that depth in the Tongan navy or police.

"We have requested assistance from Australia and New Zealand and we understand that their divers can reach 52 meters, " he said.

"The magnitude of the disaster speaks for itself - this is a huge undertaking for everyone involved," he told a press conference this morning.

The MV Princess Ashika operated by the Shipping Company of Polynesia reported a mayday SOS distress call at approximately 2350 hours on August 5. Commander Kelley confirmed that the vessel was a ferry on a routine voyage between Tongatapu, Ha'apai, and Vava'u.

"As at 0100 hours on August 7, Tonga Police and the Shipping Company believe that 117 persons were on board when the vessel left Tongatapu on Wednesday evening."

The distress call was picked up immediately and a search and rescue operation was quickly underway initiated by Coastal Radio Nuku'alofa and the Rescue Coordination Centre in Wellington.  [07/08/09]

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