MOSUL: At least 77 people died as a ferry packed with families celebrating Kurdish New Year sank in a swollen river in the former jihadist stronghold of Mosul, in Iraq's worst accident in years.
There was an outpouring of grief among residents who only this year resumed the annual festivities on the banks of the Tigris after the northern city's recapture from the Islamic State group.
The vessel was crammed with men, women and children crossing the Tigris to go to a popular picnic area to celebrate Nowruz, the Kurdish New Year and a holiday across Iraq marking the start of spring.
While war and jihadist attacks have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in Iraq in recent years, such accidents are relatively rare.
"It's a disaster, no one expected that," said a young man who had just managed to reach the shore. "There were a lot of people on the boat, especially women and children," he said.
A Mosul security source said the high water levels and overcrowding on the boat, with well over 100 people on board, had been to blame for the disaster.
The health ministry put the death toll at 77 after the interior ministry's spokesman Saad Maan said the victims included 19 children, with 55 people rescued.
"The boat sank because there were too many passengers on board," another security official based in Mosul said.
The health ministry said earlier that 33 women were among those who drowned. Iraq's justice ministry said it had ordered the arrest of nine ferry company officials and banned the owners of the vessel and the tourist site from leaving the country.
The authorities had warned people to be cautious after several days of heavy rains led to water being released through the Mosul dam, causing the river level to rise.
Videos shared on social media showed a fast-flowing, bloated river and dozens of people in the water floating in the water or trying to swim around the partly submerged boat.