International air search for survivors from missing Kiribati ferry suspended

SYDNEY (Reuters) - An international air search for more than 80 passengers that were onboard a missing ferry off Kiribati has been suspended, the search party said on Friday.

U.S, Australian and New Zealand aircraft have for several days been scouring the central Pacific Ocean for a life raft believed to be carrying survivors from a 17-metre (56-foot) catamaran reported missing on Jan. 20 after departing Nonouti Island on a 250 km (155 miles) trip to Betio in Kiribati.

The ferry was carrying 88 passengers.

Seven people that were rescued from a drifting dinghy on the weekend said the ferry broke up soon after setting out and that they had seen other passengers scramble aboard a life raft. But with no further sightings of a lifeboat, the search has now been suspended.

"The Rescue Coordination Centre Nadi and Kiribati have decided that it is no longer appropriate for the air search to continue. The international aircraft will be returning," Vince Cholewa, a spokesman for The Rescue Coordination Centre of New Zealand, told Reuters.

Seven aircraft from New Zealand, Australia and the U.S. coastguard have been combing around 92,000 square km (35,500 square miles) of ocean for the missing life raft, which was designed to hold about 25 people but capable of squeezing on more.

Kiribati vessels will continue searching, the government said.

(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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