Dozens of people have died after a ferry carrying about 200 people celebrating the Nowruz holiday capsized in the Tigris River near the Iraqi city of Mosul.
Many of the dead were women and children who could be seen struggling to swim against a strong current, their heads bobbing in the water opposite restaurants and an amusement park where people had been celebrating minutes earlier.
In a visit to the site of the accident on Thursday, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi ordered an inquiry and said those responsible would be held accountable.
Major-General Saad Maan, a spokesman for the interior ministry, said at least 71 people were killed in the accident. The AP news agency cited an Iraqi health official as putting the number of fatalities at 83.
At least 55 people, including 19 children, were rescued, officials said.
“I was standing near the river bank when suddenly the ferry started to tilt left and right, and passengers began screaming before it capsized,” Mohamed Masoud, a local civil servant, told Reuters news agency.
“I saw women and children waving with their hands begging for help but no one was there to rescue them. I don’t know how to swim. I couldn’t help. I feel guilty. I watched people drown.”
The boat had been ferrying people to a small island nearby.
Al Jazeera’s Natasha Ghoneim, reporting from the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, said footage posted on social media showed “a very distressing picture” at what appeared to be a theme park.
“We are seeing the video of what appears to be a ferry upside down … people jumping into the Tigris River in an attempt to rescue others. We can hear people along the banks screaming and we can see several people swimming furiously in what appears to be a rather swift current.”
Hussam Khalil, head of the civil defence in the northern Nineveh province, told AP the vessel had sunk due to a “technical problem”.
Nowruz, which marks the Kurdish new year and the arrival of spring, is celebrated across territories that once made up the ancient Persian empire, stretching from the Middle East to Central Asia.
The holiday is celebrated as the Persian New Year in Iran.
The usually tame Tigris is running high this time of year, fed by snowmelt from mountains in Turkey. The river swelled further after a rainy season that brought more precipitation than in previous years.
Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies