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MANILA - More than 700 people were missing yesterday after a Philippines passenger ship capsized in a typhoon that has killed scores and left a trail of destruction across the south-east Asian archipelago.
Only four people are so far known to have survived the ferry disaster. Many passengers did not make it off the MV Princess of Stars in time.
Crowded life-rafts sank in the cold, storm-tossed seas.
"Many of us jumped, the waves were so huge, and the rains were heavy," a survivor only identified as Jesse told local radio.
"There was just one announcement over the megaphone, about 30 minutes before the ship tilted to its side.
"Immediately after I jumped, the ship tilted, the older people were left on the ship."
Princess of Stars ran aground on Saturday but the coast guard was unable to reach it because of huge swells and bad weather caused by Typhoon Fengshen, which crashed into the central Philippines on Friday.
Four people have been confirmed dead but most of the 620-plus passengers and 121 crew remain missing. Children's slippers and life jackets have washed ashore.
According to the ship's manifest, there were 20 children and 33 infants on board. At least two other coast guard vessels were en route to help in rescue efforts.
Princess of Stars sank 3km from Sibuyan island in the centre of the archipelago. The vessel's owner, Sulpicio Lines, said it had lost contact with the ferry, en route to Cebu from Manila, at about 12:30pm on Saturday.
Dozens of relatives, some in tears, crowded into the offices of Sulpicio Lines in the central city of Cebu, looking for information.
"My father was one of the passengers. Right now there is no good news," said Lani Dakay. "My father is 59, I don't even know if he can swim."
Typhoon Fengshen, with maximum gusts of 195kph, has killed at least 155 people in central and southern Philippines, including 101 in Iloilo province.
"Iloilo is like an ocean. This is the worst disaster we have had in our history," governor Neil Tupaz told local radio.
Tens of thousands of people in the province remain marooned on the roofs of their submerged houses. In neighbouring Capiz, more than 2000 houses were destroyed and officials were struggling to make contact with communities further afield.
"We got hit real bad this time," said Richard Gordon, the chairman of the local Red Cross.
Fengshen was expected to exit the north of the country by today en route to Taiwan, where it could make landfall in the next few days.
l Pope Benedict XVI yesterday expressed his sorrow for the victims of the ferry disaster and for thousands of people struck by Typhoon Fengshen.
Speaking after his Angelus blessing to the faithful gathered in St Peter's Square, he said he wished to assure "my spiritual closeness" to those killed, injured or rendered homeless.
"I also wish to raise a special prayer for the victims of this new tragedy of the seas, in which it appears many children are involved," he added. - Reuters, Sapa-dpa