CAIRO, Egypt - An Egyptian ferry carrying about 1,300 people sank in the Red Sea overnight during bad weather, and rescue ships arriving at the scene Friday pulled dozens of bodies from the water, an official said. About 100 survivors were rescued in five lifeboats.

An Egyptian Embassy spokesman told the British Broadcasting Corp. that "dozens of bodies of victims" had been pulled from the choppy waters between Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The 35-year-old ship, Al-Salaam Boccaccio 98, went down 40 miles off the Egyptian port of Hurghada, the head of the Egyptian Maritime Authority, Mahfouz Taha Marzouk, told The Associated Press. The cause was unknown.

Britain's top naval officer said he had diverted a warship to the north Red Sea site and it will arrive within two days.

An official at the maritime authority control room in Suez said at least 20 bodies had been pulled from the water, and 30 people were rescued. The official spoke on condition of anonymity beacuse he was not authorized to speak to the press.

Ayman al-Kaffas, a spokesman for the Egyptian Embassy in London, told the BBC that "a massive search-and-rescue effort" was underway, and "dozens of bodies of victims" had been pulled from the water.

"We have spotted several lifeboats with live passengers that we are trying to get to," al-Kaffas said. "It's a challenging operation due to the bad weather conditions."

There were high winds and a sandstorm overnight on Saudi Arabia's west coast, where the ship departed from. The ship sailed from the Saudi port of Dubah at 7 p.m. Thursday night and was scheduled to arrive at Egypt's port of Safaga 120 miles away eight hours later.

The ship disappeared from radar screens shortly after sailing, maritime officials in Suez said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

Helicopters sent up soon after the vessel disappeared saw bodies floating in the water and at least one lifeboat carrying three people, Egyptian maritime officials said.

Nizam Siddiqui of Lloyd's of London said he had ruled out a collision or terrorist attack as the cause of the accident because the area was well-patrolled.

"The rough weather must have been the main factor for bringing this vessel down," he told the BBC from Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, adding that the ship was "very well-maintained."

The agent for the ship in Saudi Arabia, Farid al-Douadi, said the vessel was in good condition. The passengers were mostly Egyptians but included Saudis, Sudanese and other nationalities.

Marzouk said the ship built in 1971 and renovated in 1990 in an Egyptian shipyard was carrying 1,318 people, including a crew of 96. It also was carrying about 220 vehicles.

"The ship complied with all necessary safety measures," Egyptian Transport Minister Mohammed Lutfy Mansour told Egypt's semi-official Middle East News Agency. "The reasons remain unknown. ... The Coast Guard is doing everything in its power to try to rescue these people."

The ship was carrying mostly Egyptian workers, who often take ships from Saudi Arabia back home across the Red Sea. The passengers also included families of the workers returning home from visiting their loved ones in Saudi Arabia, relatives waiting at Safaga port said.

Initial reports said some of the passengers may have been Muslim pilgrims returning from the hajj to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, which ended nearly a month ago. But the Saudi port of Dubah is known more as a transit point for workers than pilgrims, who mostly leave through Jiddah, further south.

Dubah and Safaga lie virtually opposite each other at the northern end of the Red Sea, which is an extremely busy sea route. In addition to east-west traffic between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, there is north-south traffic through the Suez Canal and to and from the Israeli and Jordanian ports of Eilat and Aqaba.

The ship is owned by the Egyptian firm El-Salaam Maritime Transport Co. The company's owner, Mamdouh Ismail, said the ship is registered in Panama. He spoke before the sinking was confirmed and refused to comment further.

A ship owned by the same company, also carrying pilgrims, collided with a cargo ship at the southern entrance to the Suez Canal in October, causing a stampede among passengers trying to escape the sinking ship. Two people were killed and 40 injured.

This was not the first disaster involving Safaga. On Dec. 14, 1991, more than 460 passengers and crew died after a coral reef tore a hole in a ferry's side near the port.