International search and rescue operations for the missing inter-island ferry in Kiribati have been suspended, New Zealand Maritime authorities announced Friday.
"Four search aircraft from New Zealand, Australia and the United States will return to their countries," said Kevin Banaghan, Acting Manager of New Zealand's Rescue Coordination Center.
A rescue aircraft from the Australian Maritime Safety Agency and a C-130 Hercules plane from the US Coast Guard joined the search efforts last week.
Local authorities also confirmed this week that 88 people were on board the ferry, including 65 adults, 13 teenagers and 10 children. Earlier reports estimated 50 people on board.
Seven passengers were rescued on January 28 after being spotted in a drifting dinghy by a New Zealand Air Force Orion patrol plane. The plane diverted a nearby fishing vessel to pick up the survivors, according to Sandra Ford, a spokeswoman of the New Zealand Rescue Coordination Center.
The ferry, MV Butiraoi, left the island of Nonouti on January 18, bound for the Kiribati capital of South Tarawa, a 155-mile trip expected to take two days. Kiribati and Fiji began the search after the ferry failed to arrive. New Zealand's Rescue Coordination Center later took charge of search and rescue operations.
Kiribati, an island republic with a population of 108,000, consists of 33 coral atolls about midway between Hawaii and Australia. The archipelago, which is 3,425 miles north of New Zealand, is in a vast and remote part of the South Pacific.
Rescue workers described the area where the dinghy was found as "quite remote," and said other ships would take at least 24 hours to get there.
Kiribati vessels will continue searching, New Zealand authorities reported.
Susan A. Thornton, Acting Assistant Secretary at the State Department's Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, offered condolences to the people of Kiribati following the tragedy. "Our thoughts and prayers are with them as they continue to search for those lost at sea," she said.