Two boats capsized in separate incidents on Congo’s vast rivers, leaving 70 people dead and 200 others missing.
Both vessels were heavily loaded and operating with few safety measures, officials said. In one incident, a survivor claimed local fishermen attacked drowning passengers and tried to steal their belongings.
Early on Saturday, a boat on a river in north-west Equateur Province hit a rock and capsized, provincial spokeswoman Ebale Engumba said. More than 70 people were believed dead among 100 estimated passengers.
Ms Engumba said officials were investigating why the boat was travelling through the darkness without a light.
In a separate incident in Kasai Occidental Province, 200 people were feared dead after a boat loaded with passengers and fuel drums caught fire and capsized in southern Congo.
The incident in southern Congo would be the deadliest boat accident in the Central African nation this year, and among the worst in Africa this year.
The boats that traverse Congo’s rivers are often in poor repair and filled beyond capacity. The industry is not well-regulated and boat operators are known to fill boats to dangerous levels.
In the first incident in north-west Congo, Ms Engumba said officials believed the boat’s lack of lighting was responsible.
“We are going to arrest people involved who are in charge of regulating the boat’s movement who failed to stop that boat from travelling at night,” she said.
In the second incident, survivors said the boat was overloaded with people and goods. A local official said two of the boat’s crew were arrested but both refused to say how many people were aboard.
The official said the passenger log apparently vanished in the fire.
Fabrice Muamba, who said he was on the boat when it caught fire on the Kasai River, said he thought only 15 of the more than 200 people he thought were aboard were able to swim to safety.
He said passengers began to jump overboard when the engine caught fire as it passed the remote village of Mbendayi, 45 miles from the town of Tshikapa, which is north of Congo’s border with Angola.
Another survivor, Romaine Mishondo, said the boat was already packed with “hundreds” of passengers when it stopped some 10 minutes before the fire to pick up more people.
She said she did not know exactly how many people were aboard, but the boat was so crowded it reminded her of “a whole market in the village full of people”.
But when the fire started and people began jumping overboard, she claimed nearby fishermen ignored drowning passengers’ pleas for help.
“Fishermen attacked the boat and started beating passengers with paddles as they were (trying) to loot goods,” she said.
“The fishermen refused to save passengers, instead taking goods into their pirogues.
“I survived because I hung on to a jerrycan until another vessel passed by the scene and rescued us.”
Boat owner Mwamba Mwati Nguma Leonard said a survivor and an employee called to tell him the boat caught fire when workers spilled fuel and ignited the engine.
“At the moment I am crying after learning my boat caught fire,” he said. “I was just told on phone that it was while seamen were putting fuel into the tank that an explosion occurred after the oil touched the vessel’s battery.”
He said he had asked police to arrest the boat’s managers as he believed they employed unskilled workers.
Francois Madila of the navigation department in the province said police had arrested two crew members.
The incident is the deadliest of several boating incidents reported this year in Congo.
In July, officials said at least 80 people died when a boat ferrying about 200 passengers to Congo’s capital capsized after hitting a rock.
In May, dozens of people died when an overloaded canoe capsized on a river in eastern Congo. And last November, at least 90 people were killed after a logging boat sank on a lake in Congo. The timber-carrying vessel was not supposed to be carrying passengers.
Congo is a vast country of jungles and huge rivers in Central Africa with little more than 300 miles of paved road. Many people prefer to take boats even if they cannot swim.