As many as 138 people died when an overloaded boat carrying passengers and goods capsized in rough water in Democratic Republic of Congo, said police.
Congo’s government confirmed the incident, but gave a lower toll and said it may have been caused by low water levels on the river due to the dry season.
The accident took place mid-week on a stretch of the Congo River in the western Bandundu province, east of Kinshasa, the capital of the vast central African nation, Reuters reports.
“The boat was badly overloaded and it didn’t make the rough waters,” Jolly Limengo, provincial inspector of police for Bandundu, told Reuters by telephone on Thursday.
“People here don’t know how to swim. Our provisional toll is 138 dead,” Limengo added.
Naval forces and local Red Cross have gone to assist and collect the bodies, Information Minister Lambert Mende said.
Mende told Reuters that the transport ministry’s death toll currently stood at 80 and he said the accident took place on Tuesday at Mangutuka river post, about 120 km from Kinshasa.
Limengo said earlier that it took place on Wednesday, 300 km from Kinshasa. No reason was given for the differences.
“These accidents regularly take place in the dry season,” Mende said, explaining that boats get snagged or can overturn on submerged sandbanks more easily as water levels fall.
“Sometimes the boats are negligent and there’s not enough water so they easily turn over,” he said.
Mende said rules obliging boat owners to take out insurance, and insurers to check the boats are in good condition before offering insurance are regularly ignored.
“People regularly don’t respect the rules,” he said. The most recent previous accident took place just a week ago, also in Bandundu province, although no one was killed, he said.
Decades of conflict and neglect have left the nation’s infrastructure in tatters, meaning travel by air and river are often the best or only option for Congolese travellers.
Accidents are frequent and often blamed on overloading.
At least 73 people died when a boat carrying logs and illegal passengers sank on a lake in Bandundu in November.