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Philippine police have filed murder charges against the owners and crew of a passenger ferry that capsized just moments after leaving a port in central Philippines and left at least 61 people dead.

Officials said on Saturday that overloading of cargo and passengers might have been to blame for the disaster.

The charges were filed late on Friday in the central city of Ormoc, according to regional police head Chief Superintendent Asher Dolina.

The ferry capsized moments after leaving Ormoc port

Survivors reported seeing up to 150 sacks of cement in the ship's cargo area before it capsized in relatively calm seas off the port of Ormoc on Thursday, city councillor Godiardo Ebcas told the AFP news agency.

Bloated bodies spilled out of the Kim Nirvana's wooden hull as a crane lifted it from the water and placed it on the port, he said.

The coast guard earlier said the 33-tonne ship could carry 194 people including 178 passengers and 16 crew, but according to the casualty count of the city council, the ship was carrying at least 198.

"The ship might not be too overloaded in terms of passengers, but imagine the weight of its cargo," Ebcas said.

Each sack of rice, cement and fertiliser weighs 50kg, and 150 sacks would easily add 7,500kg to the ship's load, excluding passengers, he said.

Ebcas said survivors saw that the cargo, located on the ship's lowest level, was not fastened to the floor with ropes as it should have been.

"This could have caused the weight of the ship to shift," said Ebcas.

Frequent accidents

Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya said the ship's crew would be summoned.

"If there was negligence, it should be pursued by investigators. Appropriate charges will be filed when necessary," presidential spokeswoman Abigail Valte told reporters on Saturday.

Passengers on the ferry's regular route from Ormoc to the Camotes islands regularly bring supplies from the city to their remote fishing villages.

Poorly maintained, loosely regulated ferries form the backbone of maritime travel in the Philippines.

Frequent accidents in recent decades have claimed thousands of lives, including the world's worst peacetime maritime disaster in 1987 when the Dona Paz ferry collided with an oil tanker, leaving more than 4,300 dead.

Last September, at least three people died and more than 100 people were rescued after a ferry sank in waters off Panaon Island in the Southern Leyte province after it was hit by huge waves during bad weather.

Source: Agencies