Up to 31 dead after passenger ferry fire in Philippines

Up to 31 people have died after a ferry carrying about 250 passengers and crew caught fire in the southern Philippines.

The Coast Guard Commodore Rejard Marfe confirmed that 28 people had drowned or died in the blaze

However, Jim Hataman, governor of Basilan, the southern island province near where the ferry caught fire, said 31 people had died.

Search and rescue efforts are continuing for at least seven missing passengers.

The MV Lady Mary Joy 3 was en route to the Sulu province from the southern port city of Zamboanga when it caught fire close to midnight local time, Mr Hataman said.

The bodies of 18 individuals were discovered in a passenger cabin.

"These victims perished onboard due to the fire," he added.

At least 23 passengers were injured and taken to hospital. It was discovered that some additional travellers were not listed on the vessel's documentation.

"Some of the passengers were roused from sleep due to the commotion caused by the fire. Some jumped off the ship," Mr Hataman said.

Frequent storms and badly maintained boats mean that accidents at sea are common in the Philippine archipelago. Overcrowding and patchy health and safety regulations, especially in remote provinces, also contribute.

Last year seven people died after a high-speed ferry carrying 134 people caught fire.

More than 4,300 people died in December 1987, after the ferry Dona Paz sank after colliding with a fuel tanker. It is known as the world's worst peacetime maritime disaster.