Kiribati ferry search called off; former president wants answers

Kiribati ferry search called off; former president wants answers

Kiribati ferry search called off; former president wants answers

Updated 2 February 2018, 11:30 AEDT

Emergency authorities suspend a huge aerial search in the Pacific for the missing Kiribati ferry that sank with 88 people onboard more than two weeks ago.

Emergency authorities have suspended the aerial search for the missing Kiribati ferry that sank with 88 people onboard more than two weeks ago.

Key points:

  • Fiji authorities say search area has been thoroughly covered
  • Former president Sir Ieremia Tabai calls for a commission of inquiry
  • Ferry was on a journey meant to take two days

Four international aircraft had been scouring a huge area of the Pacific for the past week since the alarm was first raised, eight days after the ferry set off from Nonouti Island on a two-day journey to the capital Tarawa.

The New Zealand Rescue Coordination Centre said the Kiribati Government had asked for the aerial search to end but the sea search involving five fishing vessels and a patrol boat will continue.

A dinghy with seven people onboard was found on Sunday but despite searching more than 300,000 square kilometres for the life-raft people had scrambled onto as the ferry sank, no more survivors were found.

The acting manager of the New Zealand Rescue Coordination Centre, Kevin Banaghan, said the search was suspended because coordinators in Fiji believed they had thoroughly covered the search area.

"We've had four aircraft in the air for seven days now," he said.

"New Zealand P3 has been there since Saturday and the US C-130 had been there for two days.

"And Australia also committed a P-3 and a Challenger aircraft, which carried out extensive searches over a five-day period as well."

Questions over delay to raise alarm

The seven survivors are due to arrive in the Kiribati capital, Tarawa, on Saturday, almost a week after they were rescued.

Sean Casey is coordinating the World Health Organisation's emergency response and said while their health was good, they would need ongoing support as they came to terms with the disaster.

"They have been at sea for a long time, the boat departed on the 18th of January, and clearly they'll have some needs in terms of reconnecting with their families and just feeling emotionally with the stress from the accident itself and from the long time at sea, and then reintegrating," he said.

The local MP for Nonouti Island, where the ferry set off from, said he wanted answers as to why it took eight days to raise the alarm.

"We need an independent commission of inquiry, and the Government has got to respond," MP and former Kiribati president Sir Ieremia Tabai said.

"We will never believe what comes out of the Government."

A survey of villages on the island found 23 of the ferry's passengers were high school and primary school students heading to Tarawa for the start of term.

Sir Tabai said every village on his island had been affected and whole families had drowned.