At least 22 people, including 15 young children, have died after a boat on the Niger river broke up overnight near the central Malian city of Mopti, officials say.

A senior civil protection official, commander Naman Keita, confirmed the latest toll in Friday's accident, adding that 15 children aged under five were among the recovered bodies.

Another 23 people were missing.

"We don't know yet why the boat broke up," Commander Dramane Diallo, from the rescue services, told the AFP news agency.

"Investigations are under way. The boat broke at the stern" in a branch of the river near the village of Koubi, about 70km north of the regional capital Mopti, and 210 passengers survived the accident, he said.

A hospital official in Konna said it was believed as many as 400 passengers may have been aboard the boat at the time of the accident. 

Poor roads and the relatively high cost of overland travel make West and Central Africa's waterways important transport arteries. Enforcement of safety regulations is lax and accidents are common. 

The search for survivors and more victims was suspended overnight and was to resume on Sunday morning, Diallo said.

Diallo said the large dugout was also loaded with goods. No further details were immediately available.

Rescue mission 

The governor of Mopti said the Malian rescue services were assisted by residents of Koubi and passing boats.

"This is what allowed for 20 bodies to be recovered. The search and rescue operation is ongoing," Ibrahima Hama Traore said on public television.

He said that accidents were not uncommon on the river but that the human loss from Friday's disaster was "extremely unusual".

Traore said consultations would be undertaken with river transport companies to regulate traffic and prevent overloading.

Those rudimentary canoes are the main means of transport for residents of Mali's central and northern regions travelling to the towns dotting the Niger, the main river in West Africa.

Often powered by a van motor, they can sometimes carry tonnes of merchandise as well as over 100 passengers.

The Niger is more than 2,500 miles long. It connects landlocked Mali's arid north to the more fertile south.

Source: Agencies