At least 27 drown as riverboat capsizes in Democratic Republic of the Congo

MBANDAKA, DR CONGO (AFP) - At least 27 people drowned when an overloaded riverboat capsized in northern Democratic Republic of Congo, a local official said on Wednesday (Sept 19).

The incident happened late on Monday night when the roof of the boat, which was overloaded with merchandise, caved in, causing the vessel to founder as it sailed down a tributary of the Congo River, some 1,500km from Kinshasa.

"We pulled 27 bodies from the Mongala river on Tuesday after the boat capsized overnight," provincial governor Alpha Belo-Ngwata told AFP.

"Other bodies are still in the water. Rescue teams are trying to recover them," he added, without giving a precise toll.

Junior Mozobo, one of around 30 survivors, told AFP the boat had been packed with around 60 people, most of them merchants and students.

The roof, which had been piled high with merchandise, gave way at around 11:00 pm, collapsing onto the passengers below, he said.

The fact that the vessel was in poor condition and navigating at night had also contributed to the accident, he said.

"Within minutes, the boat sank. It all happened very fast, I was just lucky not to be under the roof," he said.

Such boats are typically 15 to 30m long and up to 6m wide and can carry up to 140 tonnes of merchandise along with dozens of passengers.

There are no life jackets and most people cannot swim.

Authorities were searching for the boat's owner, who fled following the accident.

An aide to the transport minister said the boat had flaunted strict regulations banning any vessel without lights from setting sail at night.

Most operators pay little attention to security regulations or those governing the weight of merchandise carried on board, and boats often capsize on lakes and rivers.

In May, 50 people died in a similar accident on another river in the north-west of the country.

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