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08-10-2009, 08:55 AM
Cops vow to probe tragedy


Sunday News Last updated 05:00 09/08/2009SharePrint Text Size Sunday News, August 9

Relevant offers TONGA'S police chief says he is determined to find the cause of his nation's worst disaster in "living memory".

But asked if criminal charges were imminent, Commander Chris Kelley told Sunday News last night: "I wouldn't think so, no.

"The police are continuing with an investigation related ... to the deaths of the people on the boat.

"We will have a huge amount of work to do in terms of interviews and in terms of statements and follow-up inquiries.

"I don't know the circumstances of the sinking as such, bare in mind it was at night-time. So whatever happened will be coloured by the fact that it was dark. But I hope that we will be able to determine and establish that."

Police were gathering lengthy statements from the tragedy's 54 survivors. At least 85 people from the MV Princess Ashika, including at least 21 women and 11 children, remain missing, presumed dead, after it capsized in seas off Ha'afeva. There were believed to be 141 people on board, although the official passenger and crew list records only 79.

"Out of those statements, the gathering of evidence and information [it will be decided] whether or not there is any criminal liability or liability," Kelley said.

"I would imagine there would be a range of interested parties in this incident."

Questions have been raised about the Ashika's sea-worthiness. Akilisi Pohiva, the leading People's Representative in the Legislative Assembly, said his party had tried to stop the royal government buying the ship from Fiji.

"Its sinking didn't come as a surprise to me," he said. "We knew it was old and unseaworthy. It was built in 1972 ..."

Pohiva had discovered the Marine Department had denied it an operating certificate. Tonga paid F$600,000 ($NZ44,400) for the ship, even though its operator was about to sell it for s**** for F$200,000 ($NZ14,800). It was meant to be a stopgap until a new Japanese-built ferry was delivered in 2011.

A senior official from Tonga Corporation of Polynesia Ltd, the company which ran the MV Princess Ashika in Tongan waters, refused to comment to Sunday News while the search and rescue operation and police investigation continued.

The Ashika, heading from Nuku'alofa to Ha'afeva Island when it capsized, was heavily laden with timber and two ambulances being sent to Ha'afeva.

Survivors managed to clamber into seven of the boat's nine life-rafts. An eighth was later found empty and searchers are yet to find the remaining one. Kelley said: "It is the most major disaster that Tonga has experienced for many, many years probably within living memory.