Ships scramble to rescue chemical tanker stricken off France

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Rescue ships scrambled Friday to save a stricken chemical tanker adrift off France's Atlantic coast after a collision with a freighter forced its crew to abandon ship, maritime officials said.

A deepwater tug attached a tow-rope to the 120-metre (400-foot) Maltese-flagged Uranus after a salvage team boarded the ship, which is carrying 6,000 tonnes of solvents, the coastguard said.

The ship's 13-member crew took to the life rafts shortly before dawn from where they were winched to safety by rescue helicopter, said the coastguard headquarters in the nearby Brittany city of Brest.

One member of the reportedly Turkish crew was lightly injured during the rescue, the coastguard said.

The Uranus was said to be "taking on large amounts of water" after colliding with a bulk carrier 50 nautical miles southwest of the island of Ouessant.

The coastguard later said that they had started to pump some of the water out of the ship, with no pollution visible.

"We're in more of a favourable situation than an unfavourable one," maritime authority spokesman Marc Gander told journalists in Brest.

The authorities are waiting for the ship to be ready to be towed before "knowing what we'll do in the coming hours," he said.

The Uranus was built in 2008 and is compartmentalised with a double hull, Gander said, reducing the risk of the solvents leaking into the sea.

"The convoy will be travelling at four knots, which means that it'll take 12 to 13 hours if they're coming this way," to Brest, Gander said.

The Uranus was en route from from Porto Marghera in Italy to Amsterdam when the collision occurred with the Hanjin Richzad, a 191-metre Panama-flagged freighter travelling from Las Palmas in Spain to Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

One was apparently overtaking the other, Gander said.

Weather at the time of the accident was clement, with a 1.50 metre swell, the coastguard said.

The Regional Operational Centre for Monitoring and Rescue (CROSS) dispatched a navy frigate and the tug to the area.

The Brittany coast is at the western entrance to the Channel, one of the world's busiest waterways, and has in the past been hit by several environmental disasters linked to shipping.

In 1978, the sinking of Liberian-flagged supertanker the Amoco Cadiz devastated around 320 kilometres (200 miles) of pristine shoreline with 230,000 tonnes of crude oil.

In 1999, the Erika tanker carrying 30,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil broke in two and sank off Brittany, polluting a large stretch of coastline and killing tens of thousands of seabirds.

The ship's owner Total was found guilty of failing to address maintenance problems when it chartered the rusty 25-year-old Erika.

French beach resorts were deserted, fishing was halted and shellfish banned from consumption in the aftermath of the oil spill, leaving the local economy on its knees for years.

© 2010 AFP

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