CAIRO - A cargo ship collided with a boat on the Nile carrying people celebrating an engagement, leaving at least 18 dead, Egyptian police said Thursday as divers searched for missing passengers.
The captain of the cargo boat and his assistants were arrested following the accident late Wednesday in the Warraq district north of Cairo, the authorities said.
A police general on the scene told AFP that 18 corpses had been retrieved. Police and medics had earlier said 21 people were killed.
Five survivors were plucked from the river but an unknown number were still missing, the police general said.
At least two children drowned, according to medical and security sources.
Witnesses said fishermen had been first on the scene at night to pull out the corpses and survivors.
The search was initially hampered by darkness but resumed after daybreak, with police and emergency vessels trawling the river looking for survivors.
A rescue diver emerged from the water empty handed as a crowd of onlookers and relatives of the passengers gathered on the river bank, an AFP reporter said.
Rescue workers used a mechanical digger to raise the wreckage of the party boat from the water.
"At around 8, 8:30 pm, a big cargo ship collided with the boat," said Mostafa al-Soweissi, whose brother had captained the chartered vessel.
"After the collision we took fisherman boats and from 8:30 until now we took out around 19 bodies," he said, reflecting confusion over the exact toll.
Ahmed Helmy, another relative of passengers, said at least five of his family members were killed in the accident.
"Two children are missing," he said.
Helmy accused emergency services of arriving late, but a health ministry official told an Egyptian newspaper that rescue efforts had initially been hampered by the crowd.
Family and friends of a young couple had hired the boat to celebrate their engagement. It was not clear whether the couple were among the dead.
The captain has been detained for four days along with three of his assistants on suspicion of manslaughter, the official MENA news agency reported.
They are also suspected of having operated the ship without following safety regulations, the agency reported.
The Nile, which runs along the length of Egypt, is dotted with cargo ships, party boats and fishing vessels.
In 2011, at least 22 people drowned in southern Egypt when a bus they were in slipped into the Nile from a ferry which crashed into the river bank.
A year before, five people drowned north of Cairo when their boat capsized.
In the deadliest accident involving a ferry, an Egyptian vessel sank in the Red Sea in 2006 killing more than 1,000 people.
The accident fuelled resentment against the veteran strongman Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled in a 2011 popular uprising.