At least 71 people died Thursday in northern Iraq when the ferry boat they were on sank, a security official said, as rescue operations were ongoing in the Tigris River's fast-flowing waters.

Forty-five other people, including 19 children, were saved, Interior Ministry spokesman Saad Maan told the official Iraqi News Agency.

Initially, Colonel Hossam Khalil, the civil defence chief in the northern province of Nineveh, had said that at least 40 bodies were retrieved after the boat capsized near the northern city of Mosul  The dead included women and children, Khalil added in a press statement.

 The boat sank while it was carrying people celebrating Nowruz, which marks the Kurdish New Year, witnesses said.

 The tragedy, which took place near a tourist area, is believed to be the result of the ship being overcrowded.

‘The capacity of the boat was 50 people, but it sank because the number of people aboard reached around 200,’ Iraqi lawmaker Abdel-Rehim al-Shamari said in a press statement.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel-Mahdi ordered an ‘immediate’ investigation into the accident and the findings be reported in 24 hours, his office said in an online statement.

He vowed to bring those behind the mishap to justice.

A final tally of the victims is unlikely to be clear soon as fast-flowing waters were believed to have carried them away, local witnesses said.

Water levels are also high in the Tigris as a result of heavy rains over the last weeks, they added.

Mosul, the capital of Nineveh, was once the key stronghold of the Islamic State militant group in Iraq.

In July 2017, then prime minister Haider al-Abadi declared that all Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, had been retaken from Islamic State after a devastating nine-month-old campaign.

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