Rescue workers are scrambling to save livestock trapped aboard a cargo ship that capsized in the Black Sea off the coast of Romania.
The Queen Hind was bound for Saudi Arabia but overturned for yet unknown reasons shortly after leaving Romania's Midia port on Sunday. On-board the vessel were 14,600 sheep and a crew of 20 Syrians and a Lebanese national.
Rescuers recovered the crew and extricated 32 sheep, some of which were pulled from the water. Rescuers, supported by the military, police and divers, were trying to right the Palau-flagged ship and tow it to port with a majority of the sheep still trapped inside.
The operation was stopped overnight but continued on Monday morning.
The ship, which left Midia at about 12pm local time (2pm UAE time), was heading to the port city of Jeddah. The Queen Hind was built in 1980 and measures 85 metres and has a gross tonnage of 3,785, according to the Marine Traffic website.
Ana-Maria Stoica, a spokeswoman for the rescue services, said "the rescue operation is ongoing ... We hope that the sheep inside the ship's hold are still alive."
Romania's main livestock breeder and exporter association, Acebop, called for an urgent investigation. "Our association is shocked by the disaster," president Mary Pana said. "If we cannot protect livestock during long-distance transports, we should outright ban them."
Gabriel Paun of NGO Animals International claimed the ship had been overloaded, adding that the Queen Hind had already had engine problems last December. Mr Paun said, "an investigation must be opened without delay".
Activists have criticised the livestock transport vessels – about 100 of which depart Midia every year – saying sheep risk being cooked alive on board during the hot summer months.
Recurrent tragedies and protests against such ships and the companies involved have become regular. Another incident involving a large cargo ship loaded with livestock occurred in the Black Sea off Turkey's coast in 2017
Romania's Midia port is primarily used for the supply of crude oil for nearby industrial and petrochemical facilities. But it is also used by cargo ships carrying live animals from Romania, one of the European Union's biggest exporters of livestock and poorest members. It is the EU's third-largest sheep breeder, after Britain and Spain, and a top exporter, primarily to the Middle East.
In July, Vytenis Andriukaitis, then European commissioner in charge of health and food safety, demanded that Romania stop the transport of 70,000 sheep to the Arabian Gulf, citing animal welfare. He has asked the European Commission to investigate the country's practices.