PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (AP) — Rescuers have plucked more than 200 survivors from the sea off Papua New Guinea's east coast after a ferry sank Thursday with as many as 350 people on board, officials said.
An airplane from Australia, three helicopters and eight ships were scouring the search area after the MV Rabaul Queen went down while traveling from Kimbe on the island of New Britain to coastal town of Lae on the main island, Australian Maritime Safety Authority said in a statement.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard called the incident a "major tragedy" and said her country was providing assistance to its near neighbor.
"Given the likely very high loss of life here, I think when this news comes to the attention of Australians around the country they will be thinking about the people of PNG as they respond to this tragedy," she added.
The Australian maritime agency initially detected the ferry's distress beacon and alerted the PNG Maritime Rescue Coordination Center, which is coordinating the rescue effort. The Australian statement said 219 survivors had been recovered by five ships by late Thursday.
It said 350 people were believed to be on board, but Papua New Guinea's National Maritime Safety Authority (NMSA) rescue co-ordinator Captain Nurur Rahman said the true figure was likely lower.
"I cannot confirm or deny the 350 missing number. It is hearsay," Rahman said. "I have not seen the manifest as yet, but it is likely around 300."
Rahman said he was being fed information from an NMSA agent on board one of the ships.
"The dynamics of this thing are changing all the time, minute by minute," he said.
Ship operator Star Ships could not be immediately contacted for comment.