Officials said hopes were fading for another estimated 10-20 people reported missing after a crowded ferry sank on Wednesday night after being violently rocked by waves created by a passing vessel.
President Maumoon Abd al-Qayyoom said he would cut short a trip to Singapore to return home to take charge of the rescue operation which was fast turning into a recovery effort. A day of mourning has been declared.
Authorities are yet to determine how many people had been on board the crowded ferry Enamaa but said about 100 people had been rescued by the bigger vessel whose drag waves toppled the smaller ferry.
"Several smaller boats from a nearby island plucked people from the water," a local official from the southern island of Thinadoo said, as residents there buried 17 of the
victims in a mass grave.
Among those rescued was a four-month-old baby girl who survived with her parents, officials said.
A local journalist who survived the accident, Muhammad Yooshau, said the ferry capsized when passengers suddenly moved to one side of the deck to avoid being hit by a wave.
"I jumped overboard as the ferry toppled," he said by telephone from his home in Thinadoo. "I was very scared. I saw people dying in front of me."
Yooshau, 29, said the ferry appeared to be overcrowded as it set off from North Vilingili island to Thinadoo after a football match. The accident happened about two hours into the three-hour-long journey.
"This was a very terrible experience"
"I lost several close relatives," Yooshau said. "We are a small village here and everyone is in some way or the other connected or very well known to each other. This was a very terrible experience."
A coastguard spokesman said the Enamaa's skipper told them he lost control of the ferry after the steering column broke while negotiating the drag waves from the other vessel.
He said passengers had moved to one side of the boat to avoid being hit by waves, aggravating the problem and causing it to tip.
Small boats and ferries are a common mode of transport in the nation of 1,192 coral islands scattered 800 km across the equator, but accidents are rare in what is considered South Asia's most expensive tourist destination.
A sand barge capsized near Male in the early 1980s, killing about 10 people, while the same number died in a helicopter crash on Rangali island in December 1999.