KINSHASA, Congo (AP) – Nearly 200 people were missing after a barge caught fire and sank in a river in northwestern Congo, the United Nations said Saturday.

At least 301 of the nearly 500 people aboard the barge survived Monday’s accident on the Congo River near the town of Lukelela, said Alexandre Essome, spokesman for the U.N. Mission in Congo in the northwestern city of Mbandaka. One person was confirmed dead and at least one other suffered severe burns, he said.

“We don’t know what happened to the 200 who are missing,” Essome told The Associated Press by telephone.

“According to survivors, they could have returned to (the capital) Kinshasa or Mbandaka … but it’s also possible that the death toll will rise.”

News of such tragedies often travels slowly in Congo because much of the vast country is comprised of jungles, dirt roads and villages with no communications or electricity.

The fire started after a technician trying to repair a broken motor inadvertently set off a spark near a fuel barrel, Essome said.

The blaze spread quickly because most of the vessel was made of wood, forcing panicked passengers to jump into the Congo River and survivors to swim to shore.

The fire destroyed almost all the merchandise aboard, which included salt, food, fuel and live goats belonging to small Congolese traders.

“The villagers said they saw at least … six bodies floating in the river, but we couldn’t verify that,” Essome said.

The U.N. Mission in Congo on Friday dispatched two patrol boats and a helicopter to look for survivors and distribute emergency medical supplies, water and blankets, Essome said.

Lukelela, a village on the border with Republic of Congo, is about 250 miles northwest of Kinshasa. The village has no radios or telephones, Essome said.

The boat sank on an uninhabited part of the river, and survivors walked several hours to Lukelela, the nearest town, to call for help.

The ship’s owner said the vessel was believed to be carrying 500 people when the tragedy occurred.

The United Nations said in a statement the barge was traveling from Makoti Mpoko in Republic of Congo and was headed north up the Congo river.

AP-ES-01-31-04 1715EST

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