Another 77 passengers managed to escape without injury according to local hospital officials, but there were conflicting accounts of the death toll from the Djibouti authorities.
A spokeswoman for the foreign ministry said at least 66 people had died while state television quoted the interior ministry as saying that at least 62 people had died.
Television reports said the boat, a traditional wooden vessel, was carrying between 250 to 300 people when the accident occurred around midday as it left the Port of Djibouti.
Officials at a French military base here said they believed the death toll could rise. “We may find more bodies in the hull of the boat or in the sea,” said one French official.
The French ambassador to Djibouti, Jean-Paul Angelier, said the death toll remained unclear. “There are deaths, it is obvious,” he said.
He said that troops from a French military base in Djibouti, France’s largest in Africa, had responded quickly to the emergency.
A spokesman for the US-led Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, which is also based in Djibouti, said the US military was aware of the accident and had offered to help in search and rescue efforts but could not say if the offer had been accepted.
Witnesses said many of the passengers were said to have been travelling to the northern Djibouti town of Tadjourah for a religious festival.
The cause of the accident was unclear but the weather was reported to be fine when the boat capsized. Some witnesses said it appeared the vessel may have become unstable because of a large number of passengers moved to one side.
Khaled Haidar, an Information Ministry official, said the accident was likely due to an “imbalance” that occurred because the vessel had little or no cargo in its hold and was carrying a large number of people above-deck.