PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (AP) -- Rescue crews have saved 28 people from the water off Papua New Guinea's northeast coast after a ferry sank Thursday with as many as 350 people on board, officials said.
The MV Rabaul Queen went down when traveling between the coastal towns of Lae and Kimbe after it sent a distress signal early Thursday, PNG's National Maritime Safety Authority (NMSA) said.
Rescue co-ordinator Captain Nurur Rahman said four merchant ships were diverted to the scene by Australian authorities to help with the rescue.
"They have rescued 28 people who are now on board one vessel," Rahman said.
"I cannot confirm or deny the 350 missing number, it is hearsay. I have not seen the manifest as yet, but it is likely around 300," he added.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said there were 350 people aboard and that Australia was providing assistance to its near neighbor, without elaborating on that help.
"This is obviously a major tragedy," she told reporters in the Australian city of Melbourne.
"Given the likely very high loss of life here, I think when this news comes to the attention of Australians around the country they will be thinking about the people of PNG as they respond to this tragedy," she added.
Rahman said he was being fed information from an NMSA agent on board one of the ships.
"The dynamics of this thing are changing all the time, minute by minute," he said.
Earlier, an unnamed NMSA official said two helicopters from Lae had also joined the operation.
NMSA rescue co-ordinator Fred Siroi said he would make a public statement later Thursday.
Ship operator Star Ships could not be immediately contacted for comment.