11 Aug 2009

Minister resigns over Tongan ferry disaster

10:53 pm on 11 August 2009

A government minister has resigned over the sinking of a Tongan ferry, saying the interests of the Pacific nation must be taken into account at this difficult time.

The Princess Ashika sank about 86km northwest of the capital, Nuku'alofa, en route to the Nomuka Islands group last Wednesday.

Ninety-three people remain unaccounted for and two bodies have been recovered.

On Monday, Transport Minster Paul Karalus denied there were problems with the ferry's seaworthiness or that concerns had been raised with the government before the tragedy.

But anger has been increasing in Tonga as people demanding answers have packed churches across the nation to mourn the loss of their loved ones.

Work is under way to establish a Royal Commission of Inquiry and a special sitting of Parliament was held on Tuesday to work towards setting this up.

There have been calls for the minister and others in Cabinet to step down. But Mr Karalus says his decision is not an admission of guilt, but rather a legal requirement.

In a statement on Tuesday, he says it is essential that a complete and full investigation into the tragedy be made as soon as possible, and that it be carried out thoroughly and transparently.

"Although I as Minister for Transport and my ministry and staff know that we have performed our duties with due care and diligence, the overall interests of Tonga must be taken into account at this difficult time," he says.

"It is for this reason that I have considered and taken the decision to resign from my ministerial post."

Mr Karalus says he will give his full assistance to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the tragedy, but will make no further comment publicly.

Rope found near ferry site

Bad weather in Tonga on Tuesday has prevented attempts by New Zealand navy divers to investigate a rope found rising from the seabed in the area where the ferry sank.

The wreck has not yet been located and an eight-mile exclusion zone has been established at the site. The rope and visible oil are near where the ferry's emergency beacon activated.

Head of the Royal New Zealand Navy team Lieutenant Commander Andrew McMillan says they had wanted to re-deploy an automated undersea vessel to explore the area.

Parts of the search area are more than 100 metres deep. Lieutenant Commander McMillan says the depth it is likely the ferry sank to means there is no chance of people having survived inside.

However, the search for survivors is continuing.

The second of two bodies recovered so far has been identified. The woman, Vaefetu'u Mahe, 22, was from the remote Tongan island of Vava'u.