MANILA, March 4, 2004 (STAR) By Jose Aravilla - Rescuers retrieved three decomposing bodies yesterday from the hulk of SuperFerry 14 that caught fire last week off Corregdior, bringing to four the number of fatalities with 131 passengers still missing.

Coast Guard-National Capital Region (NCR) chief Commodore Wilfredo Tamayo said the bodies — two females and one male — were found late yesterday by divers who searched the remaining 30 percent of the ill-fated ship. Officials added the divers are still searching for more bodies believed to be trapped underwater.

Coast Guard divers scoured the cabins of the half-submerged ferry for the fourth day as investigators probed claims by Abu Sayyaf bandits that one of its suicide bombers set off the blaze.

"The bodies are already in their advanced state of decomposition. But from the looks of it, they do not seem to have been burned," Tamayo said.

Later, Coast Guard commander Vice Admiral Arturo Gosingan made the announcement before media. "We still can’t identify them," Gosingan said.

The body of the male passenger, clad in red shorts and wrapped in "malong" and described to be in his mid 30s, was brought to Valley of Peace funeral parlor in Moriones, Tondo, Manila. The body bore no sign of external injuries except for some bruises. The cause of death remains unknown since authorities have yet to conduct an autopsy.

The discovery brought the total of confirmed deaths to four, while 131 remain missing, Gosingan said, although it is believed many may have been rescued by passing vessels but had not yet notified authorities.

Salvage crews have searched nearly all of the wreck, but "one-third of the submerged portion of the vessel is covered in debris," Gosingan said. He added it was possible that many more bodies were buried under the debris.

Malacañang advised the public to refrain from spreading rumors and scenarios of alleged "sabotage" claims by the Abu Sayyaf.

Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said speculations on the bandit group’s claims would only muddle the ongoing investigation on the cause of the blaze that left more than a hundred people missing and feared dead.

"Let us not dwell on untoward rumors and scenarios and wait instead for the official report of the investigation," Bunye said. "Our foremost task is to search for the missing and we must devote our full energies to the task."

President Arroyo earlier tasked Transportation and Communications Secretary Leandro Mendoza to supervise the inter-agency investigation on the fire.

Mendoza said the Coast Guard and other government agencies continue their 24-hour search for the missing passengers.

The al-Qaeda-linked group Abu Sayyaf claimed responsibility and identified the alleged suicide bomber as Arnulfo Alvarado. Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Arman Balilo confirmed Alvarado was listed as passenger no. 13 in the ship’s manifest.

He was among those listed as missing aboard the ferry that caught fire early Friday following an explosion, Balilo said.

"There is still an investigation going on, but the position of the Coast Guard is that... anybody can make (such) a statement," Balilo said, referring to the Abu Sayyaf’s claim of responsibility.

Coast Guard chief Vice Adm. Arturo Gosingan said authorities were still verifying the claim, but that so far, there was no indication that a bomb caused the blaze that gutted the SuperFerry 14 shortly after it left Manila late Thursday.

Police intelligence reports have cited the ferries, one of the main forms of travel in the sprawling archipelago, as a potential Abu Sayyaf target. The Abu Sayyaf, on the US list of terrorist groups, is known for kidnappings, murders, bombings and banditry.

Despite the Abu Sayyaf’s claim, officials said there was no indication so far that a bomb caused the blaze.

However, Oscar Sevilla, administrator of the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) that conducted the initial probe, said interviews with the passengers and crew showed sabotage was possible.

Asked if he believed a bomb was behind the blast, Sevilla said: "I am not completely ruling that out. I think that is one of the things they (the investigators) have to look into."

"There are some issues which really left some doubt," Sevilla remarked although he conceded that experts had still to find any physical evidence of a bomb.

"The passengers were unanimous in saying there was a very loud blast," Sevilla said, adding that the ship’s security officials told him that no equipment or chemicals were on board that could have accidentally explode.

Terror Angle Not Ruled Out

Authorities should look into allegations that a terrorist bomb may have been behind last week’s ferry fire in Manila Bay that left four dead and more than 130 people missing, a senior maritime official said yesterday.

Oscar Sevilla, head of the government’s Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) which initially investigated the blaze onboard Superferry 14, said in a radio interview he could not rule out that a bomb might have caused the fire.

President Arroyo and senior law enforcement officials previously ruled out terrorism as the cause of the fire which left one person dead and 133 still missing.

Sevilla said interviews with survivors showed there had been a powerful blast that caused the fire which crippled the 10,192-ton inter-island ferry. He added ship personnel had told him the ferry was not carrying any explosive material.

The military and the coastguard both earlier said there was no sign of explosive material on the casualties or on the damaged portions of the ship itself.

Asked if he believed a bomb was behind the blast, Sevilla said: "I am not completely ruling that out. I think that is one of the things they (the investigators) have to look into."

"There are some issues which really left some doubt," Sevilla remarked although he conceded that experts had still to find any physical evidence of a bomb.

He said he had halted his investigation after a formal inter-agency committee was set up by the government to avoid duplication.

The ferry was en route to the central Philippines with 900 people on board when an explosion ripped through its engine room before dawn Friday. More than 700 people were rescued but 133 are still missing even though only one body has been recovered more than four days after the incident.

Officials involved in the investigation could not be contacted for comment.

Meanwhile the coastguard took a group of relatives of the missing passengers aboard a boat to visit the hulk of the burned ferry to pay their respects and personally see their recovery efforts.

The mystery over the missing passengers has continued to puzzle the searchers who have already examined the remains of the ship which is lying on its side in a cove at the mouth of Manila Bay.

Coast guard chief Vice Admiral Arturo Gosingan said their search was now focusing on trying to remove the debris which covers about a third of the ferry and which might hide the remains of the missing.

One of the relatives, Edward Layco, showed photographers a picture of his mother, Leonor, saying he was offering a reward of 100,000 pesos (1,780 dollars) just to find her body.

He appealed to the coastguard to give the relatives more information including video footage of the interior of the ruined vessel.

"Just to give us some peace. We just want to see what happened on the ship," he said. - With reports from Marichu Villanueva, AFP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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