MANILA - A FERRY operator whose ship sank off the Philippines with more than 800 passengers and crew on board said it was continuing to sell tickets on Monday, despite a government ban.
The entire fleet belonging to Sulpicio Lines has been barred from leaving port and the company officially blamed for the the weekend accident that saw one of its vessels go down during a typhoon off the sprawling nation's coast.
Hundreds are missing feared dead with only 34 survivors recovered so far.
Sulpicio Lines is also facing a lawsuit from anti-corruption campaigners who contend that the company's management has repeatedly failed its passengers by endangering their safety.
Transport under secretary Elena Bautista on Monday said the company was responsible for the sinking, and all its vessels would be suspended from sailing until further notice.
'Definitely Sulpicio Lines is responsible here,' Ms Bautista told reporters.
However, the company has denied responsibility and said the MV Princess of the Stars, which sank on Saturday off the coast of central Sibuyan Island when its engines failed after being battered by huge waves, was 'sea-worthy'.
'We're still issuing tickets,' Sulpicio Lines vice-president Sally Buaron said. 'We haven't received a formal notification (of the suspension).' 'We are at a loss as to what really happened,' Ms Buaron said, adding that the ship had no defects in its 24-year history and that its captain, Florenio Marino, sent a distress call moments before giving the order to abandon ship.
Families of victims will be compensated, Ms Buaron said, adding that the company empathised with the relatives of those who perished in the accident.
The ferry was carrying 862 passengers and crew, its owners said, correcting earlier figures released by the coast guard.
Separately, the Maritime Industry Authority has said a team of inspectors will audit Sulpicio's ships in its main dock.
'The investigation will show us if there were really lapses on the part of the crew or if they allowed the vessel (to sail) even with defects,' said Marina Administrator Vicente Suazo.
Earlier, the Volunteers against Crime and Corruption, a group of anti-corruption campaigners, said it would file a class suit against Sulpicio's management.
In an interview with ABS-CBN the group's chairman Dante Jimenez said Sulpicio Lines was responsible for a string of sea tragedies including the 1987 sinking of the Dona Paz, considered the world's worst peacetime shipping accident.
The Dona Paz, which collided with an oil tanker not far from the site of the weekend's sinking, killed more than 4,000 people.
An inquiry absolved the company of any responsibility for the disaster.
'This company should lose its license to operate because its boats are always sinking,' he said, referring to four vessels owned by Sulpicio Lines that have sank over a 21-year period.
The Princess of the Orient sank off Batangas on September 18, 1998, with the loss of 150 lives and the Dona Marilyn sank in 1988 killing around 250 passengers.
In 2005, its Princess of the World vessel caught fire while at sea, but no injuries were reported.
President Gloria Arroyo demanded on Sunday to know why the ferry was given clearance to leave Manila on Friday with a typhoon fast approaching.
A coastguard official has said the Princess of the Stars was cleared to leave for Cebu island shortly before the typhoon changed its course.
With the typhoon approaching, the captain was instructed to take shelter and 'attempted to do that,' the official said.
Sulpicio has 22 passenger ships which also carry some cargo, according to its website. -- AFP