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DAKAR: Senegal tried to calm mounting anger over a ferry disaster off the Gambian coast in which at least 399 people drowned, including many children. But estimates put the figure at more than 600.

The Joola, a state-owned boat operated by the Senegalese army and designed to carry 550 passengers, was caught in a storm on Thursday and capsized with some 800 people aboard, including 21 Europeans.

Senegalese officials said 104 people had been saved, but hopes of finding more survivors from one of Africa's worst boat tragedies were wearing thin.

Visiting the port of Senegal's capital Dakar, where scores of corpses were taken by fishing trawlers, President Abdoulaye Wade urged national unity in the face of the huge loss of life.

"I am asking every Senegalese, Christian or Muslim, to make tomorrow (yesterday) a day of prayer for the dead," he said.

"At times like this, the nation must be united to cope with the grief," Wade said.

Earlier, scores of distressed relatives had demonstrated outside the presidential palace in Dakar, demanding to know how many people had died and why the boat was so overloaded.

One Gambian navy official said some 300 bodies had been recovered from the River Gambia's estuary on Saturday, while Senegalese authorities said they had retrieved 99 corpses.

Health workers in Gambia's capital Banjul said the grim task of bringing the dead ashore was taking a long time because the corpses - some of which had already begun to decompose - had to be wrapped in nylon bags.

French, Senegalese and Gambian divers were taking part in the rescue operations. Senegal sent two containers to Banjul with ice to preserve the bodies as long as possible. A vessel was also despatched late on Saturday.

Most of the passengers were Senegalese. The government crisis unit set up in Dakar said there were 10 French nationals, five Spaniards, two Dutch, two Belgians and two Swiss on board along with 20 people from Guinea Bissau. One Frenchman was among those found alive by emergency workers.

Wade, who has pledged an investigation into the accident, told protesters at his palace that he understood their grief. He said the boat was not fit to venture into open seas.

"It was a boat designed for lakes. It was not made for the sea. The responsibility of the state is clear," said Wade, adding the families of the victims would receive compensation.

Seven hundred and ninety-six people were listed on board the Joola. Many of the passengers were students heading for Dakar to start the new school term.

French soldiers from a base in Dakar set up an emergency medical centre to help survivors.

"I survived, but I saw my wife drown and I could do nothing to help," said Frenchman Patrice Auvray, who was taken to hospital in Gambia, a tiny country which almost divides Senegal in two.

The ferry was on its way from the southern city of Ziguinchor in the Senegal's Casamance province to Dakar.

"The boat overturned in less than five minutes," said Moulay Badgi. "I heard the crying of the children and it was terrible."

Senegal has declared three days of national mourning.

Agencies via Xinhua


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