Dhaka - Up to 400 people were feared drowned after a ferry sank in a river swollen by monsoon rains in south-eastern Bangladesh, officials said on Wednesday.

The double-decker MV Nasreen was on its way to the southern town of Barisal from Dhaka when it went down in the Meghna river in Chandpur, 170km southeast of the capital.

"The ferry sank at 11pm on Tuesday night with over 600 people... According to survivors, only 200 swam to safety or were rescued and the rest sank with the ferry," Baktiar Alam, police superintendent of the Chandpur district, told Reuters by telephone.

Rivers in the low-lying nation have swollen in recent weeks with the onset of the annual monsoon. Police said the ferry appeared to have been sucked in by a whirlpool.

Three bodies were recovered from the river and one of the survivors died in hospital, police said. At least 19 people were being treated for injuries, they said.

A rescue ship was at the site and hundreds of people were crowding river banks for news of loved ones, witnesses said.

Ferries are a common means of transport in Bangladesh, one of the world's poorest nations that lies in a delta criss-crossed by scores of rivers and tributaries flowing into the Bay of Bengal. Accidents occur regularly and hundreds die every year.

Officials blame the disasters on neglect of safety regulations, structural faults, lax law enforcement and poor weather monitoring. Experts have said out of 20 000 ferries sailing across the country, only 8 000 were registered and 800 had fitness certificates.

More than 300 people were killed in two ferry accidents in April. In 1986, six hundred people were killed when an overcrowded ferry capsized on the Meghna.Here is a chronology of some of the major ferry accidents that have killed thousands of people in Bangladesh since 1986.

  • 1986

    April 20 - At least 200 people were killed when the ferry Atlas Star sinks during a storm on the Sitalakhya river.

    May 25 - Six hundred people die when the ferry Samia overturns in the Meghna River during a storm. The vessel was carrying at least 1 000 passengers, twice its normal capacity.

  • 1988

    Dec 27 - At least 200 die when the ferry Haisal sinks on the river Dhaleswari after being rammed from behind by a cargo vessel.

  • 1990

    Jan 28 - Between 100 and 150 people are presumed drowned after a ferry carrying 200, three times its normal capacity, collides with another vessel in thick fog.

  • 1994

    Aug 20 - More than 200 people die after an overcrowded ferry, the MV Dinar, travelling from Dhaka sinks in a whirlpool in the river Meghna while trying to berth at Chandpur terminal. About 60 people are rescued.

  • 1996

    Jan 1 - Up to 50 people are feared drowned when a small ferry carrying 75 passengers capsizes in the river Meghna in southern Bhola after it was hit by an oil tanker.

    June 14 - At least 50 people are believed drowned after a ferry carrying 250 passengers capsizes in the Dhanu river northeast of Dhaka.

    June 23 - Nearly 50 people are feared drowned after a ferry carrying about 200 passengers sinks in the Jamuna river.

    June 28 - Scores of people are drowned after a ferry with at least 150 people on board capsizes near Sandwip island in the Bay of Bengal during a rainstorm.

    July 22 - Five people are killed and at least 50 others are missing after a ferry with more than 100 passengers sinks in the river Jamuna.

    Aug 5 - At least 15 people drown when a boat with 40 passengers capsizes in the Meghna river near Narsingdi, 60km from Dhaka.

  • 1998

    Jan 22 - Thirteen people drown after a ferry, hit by a small freighter, sinks on the Kacha river in Bangladesh's coastal district of Pirojepur.

    March 14 - Twenty people are killed and at least 30 others missing after two ferry boats with 250 people sink in a river during a tropical storm in southwestern Satkhira district, 350km from Dhaka.

    Sept 30 - At least 13 people drown after an overloaded boat with 150 passengers capsizes in the Mogra river.

  • 1999

    April 17 - At least seven people drown and 25 others missing after a ferry carrying 200 people capsizes in the Dhanu river.

    May 8 - The MV Dwipkanya, a ferry carrying about 400 passengers, sinks in a whirlpool during a storm near Lakhsmipur, 175km from Dhaka. Between 100 and 300 are believed to have drowned.

    Aug 5 - At least 20 people are feared drowned after a boat sinks in the Sitalakya river near Dhaka following a collision with a small freighter.

    Dec 11 - Sixty-three people are killed and scores missing after a ferry with about 200 passengers sinks in river Meghna in southern Bhola district. About 100 people swim ashore.

    Dec 17 - At least 15 people drown and scores missing after a ferry carrying about 250 passengers capsizes on the river Buriganga near Dhaka.

  • 2000

    May 1 - At least 96 people drown and some 100 missing after two ferries, each carrying 150, caught in a storm capsize in the Meghna river in eastern Bangladesh.

    Dec 29 - At least 158 people killed and many missing after a ferry carrying 400 passengers sank in the Meghna.

  • 2001

    Nov 29 - Nearly 100 people are feared drowned after a ferry carrying 130 passengers sinks in the Tetulia river in southern Bhola district.

  • 2002

    May 3 - At least 450 people drown when the MV Salahuddin-2 ferry with about 500 on board sinks in the Meghna river 170km south of Dhaka.

    May 23 - More than 60 people are feared drowned after a river ferry ML Suraha sank in a storm in a river in southern Bangladesh.

  • 2003

    April 4 - At least 62 people are killed and many others missing after a ferry sank in the Surma river in northeastern Bangladesh.

    April 12 - At least 21 people are killed and some missing in a ferry accident in the Nakchini river at Kishoreganj, 150km northeast of capital Dhaka.

    April 21 - Nearly 200 people die when two ferries sank in Bangladesh rivers (Buriganga and Meghna) during a storm, witnesses said.