Tunisia prepares for 'environmental disaster' as fuel ship sinks

Merchant vessel carrying 750 tonnes of diesel dropped anchor near the coast and began to flood

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A merchant ship carrying about 750 tonnes of diesel sank off Tunisia’s coast on Saturday, posing the threat of an “environmental disaster”, the government said.

The Xelo, sailing under the Equatorial Guinea flag, was travelling from the Egyptian port of Damietta to Malta on Friday night when it got into difficulties in bad weather.

The ship was allowed into Tunisian waters and it anchored about seven kilometres from the south-eastern coast in the Gulf of Gabes, Tunisia’s Environment Ministry said.

The Environment Ministry said it was working with the defence, interior, transport and customs ministries to avoid “a marine environmental disaster in the region and limit its impact”.

Seven crew members were rescued after the Xelo started taking on water, which reached a height of about two metres in the engine room.

A local court official said the ship’s Georgian captain, and four Turkish and two Azerbaijani crew members, were taken to hospital for checks and then to a hotel.

Environment Minister Leila Chikhaoui travelled to Gabes “to assess the situation … and to take necessary preventive decisions in co-ordination with the regional authorities”, a statement from the ministry on Facebook said.

Authorities activated “the national emergency plan for the prevention of marine pollution with the aim of bringing the situation under control and avoiding the spread of pollutants”.

The Environment Ministry said that barriers would be placed to prevent the spread of fuel and the site of the ship would be cordoned off.

Divers will be sent to examine the position of the ship and the leakage site to take the steps to prevent “an environmental disaster”, it said.

The defence ministry said on Sunday that the navy would work with countries that offered to help. The ministry did not name any countries but local media reported that Italy is expected to send a naval vessel specialised in dealing with marine disasters.

Before the ship sank, the ministry had described the situation as “alarming” but “under control”.

The Gulf of Gabes was traditionally a fishing area but environment campaigners say it has suffered from pollution because phosphate-processing industries are based near the city of Gabes.

The last maritime accident involving the country was in October 2018, when Tunisian freighter Ulysse hit the Cyprus-based Virginia anchored about 30km off the northern tip of the French island of Corsica, sending hundreds of tonnes of fuel into the Mediterranean.

It took several days of maritime manoeuvres to disentangle the boats and pump some 520 cubic metres of propulsion fuel, which had escaped tanks.

Updated: April 17, 2022, 9:51 AM