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Seventeen dead, hundreds rescued after ferry sinks in Philippines

MANILA (Reuters) - At least 17 people were killed but hundreds were rescued after a passenger ferry sank following a collision with a cargo vessel in the central Philippines, a coastguard commander said.

"We don't know if there are still people missing," Rear Admiral Luis Tuason told local radio early on Saturday, citing a discrepancy between the actual numbers killed or rescued and the ferry's manifest, which showed 692 crew and passengers on board.

Tuason, the acting chief of the coast guard, said 690 people were rescued, but coast guard officials on Cebu island, the site of the accident, said only 575 people were brought ashore. They said officials had counted 17 bodies and that two coast guard vessels and a naval ship would continue to search for more survivors overnight.

The figures could not be immediately reconciled.

The 40-year-old ferry, St Thomas of Aquinas, is allowed to carry up to 904 passengers. It sank minutes after colliding with the cargo vessel about a kilometre (a half mile) off Cebu around 9 p.m. (1300 GMT) on Friday.

"It happened fast, we felt that the cargo ship hit us and minutes later we noticed our ship was listing," Aldrin Raman, a passenger, told reporters. "I grabbed a life vest and jumped overboard. I saw many passengers doing the same."

He said fishermen rescued him and several other passengers who had jumped into the sea. Local officials said dozens of fishing boats helped in the rescue.

One of the crew members on the ferry told radio the ship sank within 10 minutes of the collision.

"The collision left a gaping hole in the ferry and water started rushing in, so the captain ordered abandon ship," he said. Most of the passengers were already wearing life jackets before the ship sank, he said.

Another passenger, Jerwin Agudong, told the dzBB radio station that several people were however trapped and could not jump overboard. "It seems some were not able to get out. We saw dead bodies on the side," he said.

Scores, sometimes hundreds, of people die each year in ferry accidents in the Philippines, which has a notoriously poor record for maritime safety. An archipelago of 7,100 islands, ferries are the most common form of transportation.

Overcrowding is common, and many of the vessels are in bad condition. The country is also hit by several typhoons each year.

The Philippines was the site of the world's worst peacetime sea disaster in December 1987. The ferry Dona Paz sank after colliding with the tanker Vector in the Sibuyan Sea, killing 4,375 on the ferry and 11 of the Vector's 13-man crew. (Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)