Congo official: investigation finds operators of capsized boat overloaded, bribed officials

KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — A capsized boat that killed as many as 200 people was carrying four times as many people as the passenger list claimed, and boat operators bribed officials to allow them to overload the vessel, a Congolese official said investigators have found.

Kasai Occidental Province Deputy Governor Hubert Mbingho said late Monday that at least 153 passengers were on the boat that capsized late Saturday on the Kasai River. But he said the passenger list only had 36 names.

"We are waiting for investigations to finish so that we could arrest and punish all officials who were in charge of checking the vessel safety condition but failed to stop it from leaving the dock," he said.

Two survivors said "hundreds" of people were aboard when the engine caught fire, leading the boat to capsize. One survivor estimated 200 people drowned, and another said that local fishermen refused to help drowning passengers, instead looting goods from the burning vessel and beating people with oars in the dark.

Investigators had by Monday night found only three bodies, Mbingho said: two children and a woman who appeared to be in her 30s.

Mbingho said the boat's operators bribed officials to overload the boat. He said the boat operators appear to have gone into hiding.

"When we asked the official of the navigation department why he allowed the vessel to leave the dock, he did not have anything to say," he said. "We've noticed that there were bribes that the vessel managers gave him, and we don't know whether more people were added over the 153 passengers declared to have been aboard the vessel."

Robert Mbwinga, chairman of Congo's National Navigation Department, said rules regulating boats are difficult to enforce in a country with crippling poverty and high unemployment.

Vessel owners may hire people simply because they are relatives needing jobs, even if they have no training. Low salaries for navigation department agents are also a problem as they are susceptible to bribery.

Also on Saturday, a boat on the Ruki River in northwest Equateur Province hit a rock and capsized, provincial spokeswoman Ebale Engumba said Sunday. More than 70 people are believed dead among 100 estimated passengers. She said officials are investigating why the boat was traveling in the darkness without a light.

Congo is a vast country of jungles and huge rivers in Central Africa with few paved roads. Many people prefer to take boats even if they do not know how to swim.

The boats are often in poor repair and filled beyond capacity, and the industry is not well-regulated.