GAJARIA (AFP) - Anguished relatives protested a decision Saturday to stop searching for bodies of passengers they feared were trapped inside a ferry that sunk in central Bangladesh leaving at least 54 dead, police said.
Two salvage vessels managed to float the sunken ship, MV Miraz, and brought it closer to the shore, allowing divers to search inside of the 30m-long boat three days after it sank.
Scores of relatives waiting on a river bank reacted in anger after divers failed to find more bodies, prompting authorities to halt the search, a police officer said. Some have relatives still unaccounted for.
"They chanted slogans against the inland water transport authority," district police chief Zakir Hossain said of the relatives, some of whom have been waiting on the bank since the accident on Thursday.
"Some of them boarded small fishing boats and tried to attack a salvage vessel as soon as the search of the vessel was called off," he told AFP.
The search for bodies in the Meghna river, one of the world's widest, would continue as authorities feared that some could have been washed downstream by strong currents.
More bodies have been discovered "floating in the river", taking the death toll from 45 to 54, Hossain said, adding that at least "12 people are still missing" based on the reports of their relatives.
The exact number of passengers aboard was not immediately known as Bangladeshi ferries do not maintain passenger logbooks.
Authorities initially said the ship was carrying up to 350 people when it embarked for a trip to southern Bangladesh, but later reduced the number to 150-200. Some 40 people have managed to swim ashore.
Survivors blamed the ship's captain for refusing to take shelter from a gathering storm. An investigation has been launched into whether it had been carrying too many passengers.
"We'll take action against the ship's driver and the owner as we have got evidence that the driver defied warnings to continue the journey despite the storm," the country's inland water transport authority chief Shamsuddoha Khandaker said.
Khandaker and several survivors told AFP that the ship capsized after it was swamped by giant waves, which were unleashed by the early summer storm popularly known here as Kalboishakhi.
Ferry accidents are common in Bangladesh, one of Asia's poorest nations, which is criss-crossed by more than 230 rivers.
Experts blame poorly maintained vessels, flaws in design and overcrowding for most of the tragedies.
Boats are the main form of travel in much of Bangladesh's remote rural areas, especially in the southern and northeastern regions.