Survivor of Congo boat sinking says fishermen looted burning vessels, beat drowning passengers

KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Survivors who swam to safety after their overcrowded boat capsized over the weekend said nearby fishermen refused to help drowning passengers in the dark of night, instead looting the goods aboard the burning vessel and beating people with oars.

At least 200 people are feared dead from the disaster in southern Congo, one of two deadly boat accidents in as many days that have highlighted the dangers of travel in the country that was ravaged by back-to-back civil wars. Officials say 70 other people died in another weekend accident in the country's northwest.

Romaine Mishondo, who survived the fiery boat sinking in southern Congo, said late Sunday that the vessel was so crowded it reminded her of "a whole market in the village full of people." The boat had stopped to pick up even more people just 10 minutes before a fire broke out, she said.

As people began jumping overboard, nearby fishermen ignored the passengers' pleas for help.

"Fishermen attacked the boat and started beating passengers with paddles as they were (trying) to loot goods," she said. "The fishermen refused to save passengers, instead taking goods into their (boats). ... I survived because I hung onto a jerry can until another vessel passed by the scene and rescued us."

Francois Madila, an official from the navigation department in the province, said police arrested two crew members and are investigating the capsizing, which took place near the Central African nation's border with Angola.

Madila said the sailors have not said how many people were aboard and that the passenger list appeared to have disappeared in the fire.

Fabrice Muamba, who said he was on the boat when it caught fire Saturday night on the Kasai River, said he thought only 15 people aboard were able to swim to safety.

Boat owner Mwamba Mwati Nguma Leonard said a survivor and an employee called to tell him that the vessel caught fire when workers spilled fuel and ignited the engine.

"At the moment I am crying after learning my boat caught fire," Leonard said. "I was just told on phone that it was while seamen were putting fuel into the tank that an explosion occurred after the oil touched the vessel's battery."

He said he had asked police to arrest the boat's managers as he believes they employed unskilled workers.

The boats that traverse Congo's rivers are often in poor repair and filled beyond capacity. The industry is not well-regulated and operators are known to fill boats to dangerous levels. Still, many people prefer to take boats even if they do not know how to swim because there are few paved roads in this vast country of jungles.

The capsizing in southern Congo is the deadliest of several boating incidents reported this year in the country.

Earlier the same day, a boat on a river in northwest Equateur Province hit a rock and capsized, provincial spokeswoman Ebale Engumba said Sunday. She said more than 70 people are believed dead among 100 estimated passengers. She said officials are investigating why the boat was traveling through the darkness without a light.

In July, officials said at least 80 people died when a boat ferrying about 200 passengers to Congo's capital capsized after hitting a rock.

In May, dozens of people died when an overloaded canoe capsized on a river in eastern Congo. And last November, at least 90 people were killed after a logging boat sank on a lake in Congo. The timber-carrying vessel was not supposed to be carrying passengers.