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DEATH TRAP; 1,200 feared killed on 'danger ferry'.

Byline: By MARK ELLIS Foreign Editor

THE ferry in which 1,200 people were feared drowned yesterday had been taken out of service four years ago because of safety worries.

An Italian shipping line leased the 36-year-old Al-Salam Boccaccio 98 - a sister ship of the Herald of Free Enterprise - from Egypt.

But they returned it after a few weeks of running trips to Morocco when it failed spotchecks.

The passenger ferry went down in high seas yesterday 40 miles from Hurghada, Egypt, with up to 1,500 people on board.

Last night, only 264 survivors had been found. Forty passengers were plucked from the Red Sea after treading water for 10 hours.

The ferry did not have enough lifeboats, officials said last night. Teacher Ahmed Abdul Hamid, whose cousin was on board, said: "How can they put all these passengers in such an old ship that was not fit for sailing? Somebody should be blamed."

The roll-on, roll-off ferry left Dubah in Saudia Arabia bound for Safaga in Egypt around 7pm. The passengers were mostly Egyptian workers heading home and pilgrims returning from Mecca.

The Al-Salam Boccaccio 98 sank in rough seas and a sandstorm sometime after midnight without sending a SOS message. A distress signal was picked up by RAF Kinloss last night and passed on.

Four Egyptian frigates reached the scene 10 hours afterwards.

Dozens of bodies were found floating in the water while others were packed into the few lifeboats.

As a huge search and rescue operation continued last night, hopes of finding many more people alive looked slim.

A senior police officer said: "There aren't expected to be many survivors because it's been so long since the ship went down."

Last night President McAleese sent a message of condolence to Egypt.

Her spokeswoman said: "President McAleese has conveyed her sympathies to President Mubarak and the people of Egypt on the tragic loss of life suffered in last night's ferry disaster on the Red Sea."

Another sister ship of the Al- Salam Boccaccio 98 went down after a collision in the Red Sea in October last year, killing two.

There have been fears over the safety of roll-on, roll-off ferries since the Herald of Free Enterprise sank off Zeebrugge in 1987, killing 187 passengers.

David Osler, of Lloyd's List, said said the "roll-on, roll-off" design was known to have stability problems.

Stability was improved after the 1987 disaster.

But he said of the Egyptian ferry: "This vessel predates all that and has been pensioned off to the Third World.

"It only takes a relatively small ingress of water to set up a sort of rocking effect which gains momentum and tilts the ship.

"If water got on for any reason that is the sort of thing that could happen."

m.ellis@mirror.co.uk

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DOOMED: The Al-Salam ferry sank in the Red Sea' WORRIES: Ferry had previously failed checks
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Feb 4, 2006
Words:484
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