BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — An overladen boat carrying hundreds of passengers along the Niger River in central Mali capsized at night, and nearly 200 people were missing the following day, the mayor of a nearby town said Saturday.
Twenty bodies had been recovered by midday, said Sory Diakite, who is the mayor of Konna, about four miles (seven kilometers) from the accident scene. At least 400 passengers were believed to have been onboard the vessel headed to Timbuktu, though only 210 survivors had been counted, he said.
Ibrahim Yattara, 29, said he and his pregnant wife were sleeping onboard the boat late Friday when they awoke to a loud noise. "It was then that the ship collapsed because it was overloaded with cargo," he told The Associated Press. "With the excess weight it broke into two pieces. I started to swim and looked for my wife but after a while the boat was completely under water."
Each time a body is retrieved, Yattara goes to see if it is his missing wife, he said as his voice broke. Crews were still searching the Niger River for bodies late Saturday afternoon, said Ibrahim Maiga, who heads Radio Korondougou in Konna.
Survivors said that people from the nearby village of Kouri had rushed to the scene to help them. Many of the passengers were school children returning to northern Mali ahead of the new academic year, said Abouri Djittey, a resident of Bamako whose 7-year-old daughter Ramata was among the dead. Others were traveling to visit relatives ahead of next week's Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha.
Large boats carry hundreds of people and cargo on the Niger River at this time of year, and the journey can take up to two nights and two days from Mopti to the fabled northern town of Timbuktu. Some vessels even transport two levels of passengers.
While most Malians cannot swim, travel by water is preferable to journeying on the poor roads across the country's desert north.
Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal.