Rescue Divers in Bangladesh
Rescue Divers in Bangladesh Reuters

At least 32 people drowned Tuesday in a ferry sinking in Bangladesh with officials expressing concerned scores of bodies remain inside the vessel.

Rescue workers began removing the dead from the double-decker Shariatpur 1 ferry, which collided with an oil barge in the Meghna river – southeast of the capital Dhaka.

"Divers have recovered 32 dead bodies from the sunken vessel including at least five women and two children," local deputy police chief Tariqul Islam told AFP at the scene.

"One diver pulled out the dead body of a woman cradling her dead daughter to her chest," he said.

The rescue operation continued into the night as emergency teams, working under the glare of floodlights, struggled to raise the ferry and bring it to the river bank.

"We tried to drag it up but it was too heavy to move as it had a cargo of hundreds of sacks of chilli on board as well as passengers," Gulzar Hossain, the navy commander heading rescue operations, told AFP.

"Another rescue vessel is expected to join us in a couple of hours. The ferry was tilted on its side and we fear a lot of dead bodies are stuck inside," he said.

About 200 passengers were thought to be on the ferry, but a precise number was unavailable as many travellers buy their tickets after they board.

Police said that about 35 passengers had been rescued by another passing ferry, the MV Mitali, soon after Tuesday's accident at about 2:30 am local time.

The Mitali's captain told the ATN Bangla TV channel: "We stopped our vessel after hearing the cry of 'Save us, save us'."

Other rescued passengers told reporters the Dhaka-bound ferry was weighed down with cargo and badly overcrowded after three days of route cancellations.

Bangladesh, a densely-populated and poverty-stricken country of 150 million people, is set on a delta of rivers that empty into the Bay of Bengal and boats comprise the main form of travel.

Naval officials say more than 95 per cent of Bangladesh's hundreds of thousands of small and medium-sized boats do not meet minimum safety regulations.

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