In a major boat tragedy, at least 13 persons, many of them women and children, were killed and around eight others feared drowned when a country boat capsized in the sea near Vaala Theevu, one of the 21 islands of the Gulf of Mannar, in Ramanathapuram district on Sunday.

Two persons, who were Indian-born Australian citizens, who visited India for a function, were among those killed.

According to an eyewitness, a group of 53 persons of Periapattinam, Kilakarai and Paramakudi ventured into the sea in two boats for a picnic. While one boat was carrying 13 men, two goats, cooking materials, vegetables and other materials, there were around 40 women and children in the other boat.

When the boats were about one nautical mile from the Vaala Theevu, the overcrowded boat which carried women capsized.

It was said that a strong wave toppled the boat. Some of the occupants of the other boat, which was following it, jumped into the sea to reach the accident site. By the time they launched rescue efforts, many of them drowned. However, they managed to save some people.

On information, a group of local fishermen rushed to the area.

On Collector T.N. Hariharan's request, the services of Indian Navy, Coast Guard and Coastal Security Group were pressed into service.

While at least 13 bodies were brought to the shore, around 15 persons were rescued.

Since the relatives of those killed refused to allow the bodies to be taken to the government hospital for post-mortem, Suba. Thangavelan, Minister for Slum Clearance and officials, negotiated with them and consequently the bodies were removed.

The Superintendent of Police said 12 bodies had been identified.