Russia says at least 116 died in worst river disaster

KAZAN, Russia, July 12, 2011 (AFP) - Russian divers on Tuesday pulled the first bodies of children from the packed playroom of a pleasure boat that sank and killed at least 116 people in the country's worst shipping disaster.

Flags flew at half mast across the nation and all music was scrapped from television out of respect for those who died when the overcrowded 56-year-old Bulgaria got caught in a storm and sank in the Volga River Sunday.

AFP- People light candles in memory of victims of the pleasure boat Bulgaria that sank and killed at least 116 people

The national day of mourning saw candles lit in the central region's main city and the first 23 victims laid to rest according to Muslim tradition across Tatarstan -- one of Russia's wealthiest regions.

But grief mixed with anger as news emerged that the boat had pre-existing problems, including a malfunctioning engine, and a dangerously long passenger list when it embarked on its ill-fated journey.

Russia's powerful Investigative Committee said in a statement that negligence on the part of the tour operator "led to the death of at least 116 people."

It added the head of the AgroRechTur tour operator and a local safety watchdog chief had been detained and risk prison terms of up to 10 years.

A similar sentence faces two captains whose oil tanker and barge allegedly passed the wreck without stopping as dozens of drowning people called out for help.

"We know these ships and their captains' names," Transport Minister Igor Levitin said.

"We will use every means within the law to punish them as severely as possible."

The mix of negligence and potential criminal neglect has added political undertones to a tragedy that comes only weeks after a deadly plane crash refocused attention on the dire state of Russia's infrastructure.

President Dmitry Medvedev's potential re-election next year depends on his ability to convince voters that he can modernise Russia.

The Soviet-era ship will be brought to the surface in a delicate operation due to begin Saturday.

Officials said they will send in the same team that helped raise the Kursk nuclear submarine -- whose explosion killed 118 seamen in August 2000 -- from the bottom of the Barents Sea the following year.

Rescuers said many of the bodies still trapped in the river boat may only be recovered once the wreck is brought ashore.

But divers on Tuesday continued the gruesome task of using life vests to bring up dozens of those bodies near open portholes and the more accessible upper deck of the craft.

Divers reported their worst fears coming true overnight when they finally reached a cargo hold that was used as a music room and play lot for children as young as five years old.

Survivors said dozens of children were ushered into the room as heavy rain pelted the deck only moments before the boat started sinking.

"The divers inspected the craft and found 30 to 40 children in the cargo hold," a member of the rescue operation told the Interfax news agency.

Passenger lists show there had been 30 children aged 14 and younger on board. But survivors said the true figure may be higher as many boarded without tickets.

"We have raised five children's bodies from the music room," a recovery operation official told the RIA Novosti news agency shortly after divers managed to enter the cargo hold.

State television said several shaken recovery workers received trauma counselling after finding the children's remains.

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