(Updates the number of deaths)

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The number of deaths caused by the sinking of a ferryboat that collided with a merchant ship in seas off the central Philippines has risen to 40, according to the latest Red Cross report.

The national emergency management office said that at least 171 people are still missing after the accident that occurred Friday night off the coast of Cebu province, according to the daily Manila Channel.

The MV St. Thomas Aquinas ferryboat took just 10 minutes to sink after crashing into the MV Sulpicio Express freighter at around 1 kilometer (2/3 of a mile) from the town of Talisay.

The St. Thomas Aquinas, in service for 40 years and with a capacity for more than 900 people, was carrying a total of 830 - 116 crew members and 700 passengers including women and children.

The merchant ship, headed for the province of Davao, came away with a damaged hull but with none of its 36 crew members injured.

Fishermen were the first to arrive and help the victims, who scarcely had time to evacuate the ferry before it went under, though some 629 are estimated to have been rescued, of whom 69 are being treated at local hospitals, chiefly for fractures and traumas.

Emergency management services continue the rescue work, which had to be suspended in the morning due to rough seas, though little hope remains of finding additional survivors.

Authorities are investigating the causes of the accident and at the same time have ordered a temporary suspension of operations for the 2GO ferryboat company and the freighter's firm, Philippine Span Asia Carrier.

The chief of the Maritime Industrial Authority, Maximo Mejia, said that both vessels had their documentation in order, so it seems the accident had nothing to do with a lack of maintenance or structural faults.

The deputy commander of the Coast Guard, Luis Tuason, said "the captain managed to order the evacuation of the ferryboat and distribute life jackets, but, due to the speed with which it sank, it's very possible that many people are trapped inside."

The St. Thomas Aquinas, coming from the city of Surigao in the southern part of the archipelago, was to call in at Cebu before continuing on to Manila.

Dozens of people die in the Philippines each year in accidents at sea caused by bad weather, failure to comply with safety regulations, poor vessel maintenance and overloading. EFE