An Egyptian court on Sunday acquitted the owner of a ferry that sank two years ago in the Red Sea, killing more than 1,000 people.

The ship's owner and his son were cleared of negligence and corruption charges by a court in the Red Sea port city of Hurghada, court officials said. They were tried in absentia, and are believed to be hiding somewhere in Europe.

The ferry sank in February 2006 after a fire broke out in its vehicle bay while traveling from Saudi Arabia to Egypt. Most of the more than 1,000 victims were Egyptian workers returning home.

The accident and the slow, cumbersome rescue operation that followed touched a raw nerve in Egypt, with victims' relatives openly criticizing the government of President Hosni Mubarak.

Local and pan-Arab TV stations showed footage of victims' relatives wailing and beating their chests in grief upon hearing Sunday's verdict.

"Everything is in God's hands now!" shouted one man waving his hands in the air. Women fell to the floor, screaming.

"We are stunned. There can't be a ruling like this," said Asaad Heikal, a lawyer for several victims' families. "We will not give up and will appeal the ruling," he told reporters outside the courthouse Sunday.

The ferry sinking also lent credibility to longtime charges that Mubarak's government has abetted corruption by wealthy businessmen close to powerful members of his regime.

The vessel's owner, Mamdouh Ismail, is a member of parliament's upper house, and his son Amr was a top executive in the ferry company. They fled Egypt after the sinking, and opposition newspapers have claimed that top Egyptian officials helped them escape.

The ship's captain is also missing and presumed dead.

Egypt's prosecutor-general ordered an immediate appeal of Sunday's verdict, citing missing testimony from some survivors and inaccurate death certificates and medical reports, the country's official news agency reported.

Besides the father and son, four other people were charged in the sinking, including the captain of another Egyptian ferry who was sentenced to six months in jail for failing to respond to a distress call from Ismail's boat, the Al-Salam Boccaccio 98.

Court officials described Sunday's proceedings on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to media.

The other three defendants, who worked for the ferry company and port authority, were all acquitted, they said.