Search for missing ferry in the Pacific finds seven survivors drifting in a dinghy

The dinghy is believed to be one of two carried on the MV Butiraoi, which went missing on Jan 18 with 50 people on board. PHOTO: TWITTER/NZ DEFENCE FORCE

WELLINGTON (AFP) - Seven survivors from a ferry which went missing in the remote Pacific with 50 people on board were found drifting in a dinghy on Sunday (Jan 28) near the island nation of Kiribati, the New Zealand Defence Force said.

A New Zealand Air Force Orion plane involved in the multinational search for the ferry MV Butiraoi dropped urgent supplies to the seven and a nearby fishing vessel has been diverted to rescue them.

The dinghy was spotted in an area of the central Pacific where a New Zealand military aircraft is searching for the MV Butiraoi.

"The group seem very relieved to have been found when the NZ Air Force Orion dropped supplies, including water and a radio, to them," Ashby said in a statement.

A fishing vessel was diverted to pick up the seven while the aerial search continued for more survivors.

The New Zealand Defence Force said on Sunday (Jan 28) the fishing vessel was 92 km northeast of the dinghy's location and expected to reach the survivors mid-afternoon.

The Butiraoi was last heard from on January 18 when it set out on an expected two-day voyage from the island of Nonouti to Betio Tarawa.

The 17.5 m wooden catamaran had undergone repairs to its propeller shaft before departure and rescue officials believe this may have contributed to navigation problems.

New Zealand sent a military aircraft to conduct sweeps of the area after being called in to help late Friday by Fiji authorities who are coordinating the search.

Ashby said the sea conditions are "moderate to rough".

Kiribati, a nation of 33 atolls and reefs with a total population of about 110,000, lies some 3,460 km northeast of Fiji.

It is listed as one of the nations most at risk from rising sea levels.

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