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GUWAHATI, India - An overcrowded river ferry split in two and sank during a severe storm in northeast India on Monday, leaving at least 40 people dead and 160 missing, police said.
About 150 people were either rescued or swam to safety after the double-decker ferry, whose passengers included women and children, sank in the fast-flowing Brahmaputra river in Assam state.
Rescuers, including army units, rushed to the scene in a desperate bid to find survivors but their efforts were hampered by the bad weather and darkness.
Rahul Karmakar, who witnessed the afternoon sinking, told AFP: "I could see people being swept away as the river current was very strong."
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the sinking a "tragedy" and said he had pledged all possible assistance to the state government in the search.
"There were about 350 people on board when a storm split the steamer into two," Assam state police chief J.N. Choudhury told AFP.
"So far we have recovered about 40 bodies and an estimated 150 people were either rescued or swam to safety."
The boat was on its way from Dhubri, around 300 kilometers (186 miles) from Assam's largest city Guwahati, to the adjoining district of Fakirganj.
P.C. Haloi, police chief of Dhubri district, earlier told AFP the ferry was carrying 250 people.
Assam state chief minister Tarun Gogoi said Singh had telephoned him and promised to rush disaster response units from New Delhi and other locations.
"Army, Border Security Force and other rescue teams with mechanized boats have moved to the site but nightfall and bad weather are hampering rescue efforts," Gogoi told AFP.
Singh said in a statement that he was "shocked and grieved to know about the loss of lives."
He said that he had given instructions "for all possible assistance to the government of Assam in relief operations and also for assistance from the Prime Minister's National Relief Fund to the families of the deceased".
Boats are a common form of transport in India's remote rural regions but accidents are often caused by lax safety standards and overloading.
In one of the last major ferry disasters in India, at least 79 Muslim pilgrims drowned when an overcrowded boat sank in the eastern state of West Bengal in eastern India in October last year.
The vessel, which was carrying around 150 people, capsized in a river in the Sundarbans mangrove forest, 120 kilometers (75 miles) south of Kolkata, the state capital of West Bengal.