A search and rescue plane spotted a lifeboat near where the 11,800-tonne Al Salam 98 last had contact with shore at about 10pm (2000 GMT) on Thursday evening, one official said. Some earlier reports called the ferry the Al Salam 89 but a company official said that was a different vessel also owned by the El-Salam Maritime Transport Company.
A police source at Safaga said: "Dozens of bodies were picked up from the sea ... they were from the ferry." Egyptian aircraft also saw bodies floating in the water, other security sources said.
Most of the passengers were Egyptians working in Saudi Arabia, officials said, but at this time of year many Egyptians are still on their way home from the annual pilgrimage to Makka.
MENA, the Egyptian state news agency listed the passengers as 1158 Egyptians, 99 Saudis, six Syrians, four Palestinians, a Canadian, a Yemeni, an Omani, a Sudanese and one person from the United Arab Emirates. It said the ship had a crew of close to 100.
MENA quoted official sources as saying that the ferry had sunk 57 miles from the Egyptian port of Hurghada, north of Safaga. "Some of the passengers survived," it said. The ferry was sailing from Duba to Safaga, both at the northern end of the Red Sea. It had originally come from Jeddah, the main port for the pilgrimage.
Coastal stations did not receive any SOS message from the crew, said Adel Shukri, the head of administration at the shipping company, which is based in Cairo.
The weather had been very poor overnight on the Saudi side of the Red Sea, with heavy winds and rain, he said, but visibility should have been good out at sea.
Another company official, Andrea Odone, said he could not confirm that the ship had sunk or that there were any survivors. "It could take some hours to work out what happened," Odone said.
Lutfi Mansour, the Egyptian transport minister, told MENA the armed forces had sent four rescue vessels to the scene. A Saudi border control official in Jeddah said: "We don't know yet what happened - if it sank, or overturned, or what."
A sister ship, the Al Salam 95, sank in the Red Sea in October after a collision with a Cypriot commercial vessel. In that case almost all of the passengers were rescued. In December 1991, 464 people were killed when the Salem Express hit coral outside Safaga.
Doubts over safety
Some 16 hours after the ship encountered difficulties, controversy started to emerge over the 36-year-old vessel's compliance with safety regulations and Hosni Mubarak, the president of Egypt, demanded an immediate investigation into the accident.
A spokesman for the president said the speed at which the ship sank and the fact that there were not enough life rafts on board confirmed that there had been a safety problem.
The Italian classification firm RINA which is in charge of the ship said the company was ready to cooperate with the investigators.
According to shipping expert Yvan Perchoc, the Al-Salam Baccaccio 98 is one of several old Italian ferries to which extra levels were added in order to boost passenger capacity, sometimes threefold.
He added that despite the addition of extra bulges on the sides of these ships there is doubt over their stability.
International rescue effort
Rescue efforts appeared confused. Egyptian officials initially turned down a British offer to divert a warship to the scene to help out and a US offer to send a P3-Orion maritime naval patrol aircraft to the area.
The British vessel, HMS Bulwark, headed from the southern Red Sea where it was operating, then turned around when the offer was rejected. A spokesman for the US 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain, said Egypt then turned around and asked for both the Orion and the Bulwark to be sent.Last Mod: 20 Eylül 2018, 18:16