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Tour boat with 26 aboard missing in frigid Japan waters

TOKYO (AP) — A tour boat with 26 people aboard was missing in the frigid waters of northern Japan on Saturday, hours after sending a distress call that it was sinking, the coast guard said.

No survivors have been found after more than 10 hours of intense search involving six patrol boats, five aircraft and divers. The coast guard said it will continue the search through the night.

The 19-ton Kazu 1 made an emergency call in early afternoon, saying the ship’s bow had flooded and it was beginning to sink and tilt while traveling off the western coast of Shiretoko Peninsula in the northern island of Hokkaido, the coast guard said.

The tour boat has since lost contact, according to the coast guard. It said the boat was carrying 24 passengers, including two children, and two crew.

Average April sea temperatures in Shiretoko National Park are just above freezing.

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An official of the vessel’s operator, Shiretoko Pleasure Cruise, said he could not comment as he had to respond to calls from worried families of the passengers.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who was attending a two-day water summit in Kumamoto in southern Japan, was canceling his program for Sunday and was set to return to Tokyo to deal with the missing boat, the NHK public broadcaster reported.

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High waves and strong winds were observed in the area around noon, according to a local fisheries cooperative. Japanese media reports said fishing boats had returned to port before noon because of the bad weather.

NHK said there was a warning for high waves of up to 3 meters (9 feet) high.

Yoshihiko Yamada, a Tokai University marine science professor, said the boat was likely to have run aground after it was tossed around in high waves and damaged, flooded and probably sank. A tour boat of that size usually does not carry a life boat, and passengers possibly could not jump out of a rapidly sinking vessel with its windows probably closed to shield them from strong winds.

In an interview with the TBS television, Yamada said there is also a slight possibility that the boat might have been hit by a whale.

The cold temperature and strong wind could cause hypothermia and put the passengers in severe conditions for survival, according to Jun Abe, vice chairman of the Society of Water Rescue and Survival Research. “It’s a very severe condition especially when they are wet,” Abe told TBS.

According to the operator’s website, the tour takes about three hours and offers a scenic view of the western coast of the peninsula, including the nature and animals such as whales, dolphins and the brown bear. The national park is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and is famous as the southernmost region to see drifting sea ice.

More than 50 people were killed and many injured when an explosion rocked an illegal oil refinery in southeastern Nigeria, state officials and police said Saturday.

The death toll may be more than 100, according to a report in the Lagos-based Punch newspaper. The fire was reported to have spread to nearby properties.

The fire broke out Friday night and quickly spread to two fuel storage areas at the illegal crude oil refinery, causing the complex to be “engulfed by fire which spread rapidly” within the area, said Declan Emelumba, the Imo State commissioner for information.

The immediate cause of the explosion and the extent of the deaths, injuries and damage were being investigated, Emelumba said.

Multiple videos posted on social media showed a gruesome scene, with people’s charred remains reduced to skeletons and cinders. The Associated Press was unable to independently verify them.

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“A lot of people died. The people who died are all illegal operators,” said Michael Abattam, spokesman of the Imo State Police Command.

The Imo state government was looking for the owner of the refinery where the explosion occurred and declared him a wanted individual, an official said.

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Illegal refineries are common in Nigeria, where shady business operators often avoid regulations and taxes by setting up refineries in remote areas, out of sight of authorities.

Nigeria is Africa’s largest producer of crude oil but it has very few official refineries and as a result most gasoline and other fuels are imported, creating an opening for the illegal refinery operators.

The practice is so widespread that is affecting crude oil production in the oil-rich Niger Delta region.

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