A ferry overloaded with people celebrating the Kurdish new year and Mother’s Day capsized in the Tigris River near the Iraqi city of Mosul on Thursday, killing at least 71 people, according to officials.
Many of the dead were women and children who could be seen struggling to swim against a strong current, their heads bobbing in the water opposite restaurants and an amusement park where people had been celebrating.
Col. Hussam Khalil, head of the Civil Defense in Iraq’s northern Nineveh province, told The Associated Press the accident occurred as scores of people were out in the tourist area celebrating Nowruz, which marks the Kurdish new year and the arrival of spring.
Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Saad Maan said 71 people died, adding that 55 have been rescued, including 19 children.
Mosul was devastated by the war against the Islamic State group, which occupied the city for three years. Iraqi forces drove the militants from Mosul in 2017 after a devastating campaign that left entire neighborhoods in ruins, and residents are still struggling to rebuild.
Videos of the ferry disaster posted online showed people struggling against the strong current. The usually tame Tigris is running high this time of year, fed by snowmelt from mountains in Turkey. The river swelled further after a rainy season that brought more precipitation than in previous years.
Earlier Thursday, Health Ministry spokesman Seif al-Badr said the dead include 33 women, 12 children and 10 men. He said 30 people were rescued, adding that search operations are still underway as it is not known how many people were aboard the ferry.
Khalil said the ferry sank because of a technical problem, and that there weren’t many boats in the area to rescue people. He said more than 80 people were on the ferry when it sank.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi ordered an investigation and expressed deep condolences to families of the victims.
The U.S. Embassy said Charge d’Affaires Joey Hood and the entire mission express our deepest condolences to the families and friends of those who lost their lives in the tragic ferry accident on the Tigris River near Mosul.
Nowruz, or the Persian new year, dates back to 1700 B.C. and incorporates Zoroastrian traditions. It is celebrated across territories that once made up the ancient Persian empire, stretching from the Middle East to Central Asia. Thursday was also Mother’s Day in much of the Middle East.