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Aging vessel had been operating in Tonga for a month

MELBOURNE, Australia (Radio Australia, August 7, 2009) – More than 60 people are now reported to be missing after a ferry sank off Tonga on Wednesday night.

Two bodies have been recovered and 53 people have been rescued following the tragedy between the capital, Nuku'alofa, and the outlying Ha'afeva island.

New Zealand's New Zealand's maritime rescue coordination centre says 117 people are now believed to have been on the ship, leaving 62 unaccounted for.

A Royal New Zealand Air Force P3 Orion aircraft and three research vessels resumed searching at first light on Friday.

Mission coordinator John Dickson said plans for boats to search all night were abandoned because of deteriorating conditions and low visibility.

Mr Dickson said the search was being concentrated on areas where significant amounts of debris had been found.

"Clearly survival rates after this length of time are of concern, but we remain hopeful of finding more survivors," he said.

The rescue centre says it is understood the ferry rolled sharply and sank very quickly, but the cause is still unknown.

A survivor says most of the people still missing are believed to be women and children who were sleeping below decks.

The MV Princess Ashika went down around midnight about 90 kilometres north-east of Nuku'alofa.

The website Matangi Tonga quotes survivor Siaosi Lavaka as saying he only saw men reach the lifeboats.

Mr Lavaka says the seven lifeboats were filled with men because the women and children were sleeping in the lower decks and may have gotten trapped.

He says the sea was rough and the ferry rocked causing the cargo of timber to move to one side.

He says when the ferry began to overturn, passengers started jumping off.

Pesi Fonua, editor of Matangi Tonga editor, says the vessel had been operating in Tonga for only a month.

"It was almost like no one really cared about the condition, they were just so eager to have something running. This was an old ferry," he said.

Neville Blakemore from New Zealand's rescue co-ordination centre, says the ferry was built in Japan in 1970.

"It's been brought over to Tonga to fill in the gaps," he said.

"One of their last ferries just went out of service and the new one hasn't been completed."

A spokesman for ferry operator Shipping Corporation of Polynesia says cargo on board included a new ambulance and vehicles for the hospital in the northern island of Vava'u.

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