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Stormy sea prevents Sri Lankan divers from inspecting a sinking ship

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COLUMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) – Rough seas and poor underwater visibility are hampering Navy divers who are trying to detect any fuel leaks from a fire-damaged chemical container ship that is slowly sinking near the Sri Lankan capital, officials said Monday.

Navy spokesman Indica de Silva said divers also looked for leaks from the ship on Sunday but were unable to complete the mission due to poor ocean conditions.

“But we didn’t give up on the operation, and today we sent a team there,” he said.

Officials said there were no signs of oil or chemical spills, but environmentalists warned of a potential environmental disaster if hazardous materials were released into the water.

The Singapore-flagged MV X-Press Pearl sank last Wednesday, the day after authorities put out a fire that had raged on the ship for 12 days. Attempts to tow the ship into deeper waters off the port of Colombo were unsuccessful after the ship’s stern sank and fell to the seabed.

Its stern still rests on the bottom at a depth of about 21 meters (70 feet) and the bow continues to sink slowly, officials said.

The fire destroyed most of the ship’s cargo, including 25 tons of nitric acid and other chemicals. But there are fears that leftover chemicals and hundreds of tons of fuel oil could seep into the sea, destroying marine life and further polluting the island nation’s famous beaches.

The natural disaster has already washed the wreckage ashore, and the government has banned fishing in the coastal strip about 80 kilometers (50 miles) long.

In a shipping manifesto seen by the Associated Press, just under 1,500 containers were listed on the X-Press Pearl, 81 of which were described as “dangerous” cargo.

The fire broke out on 20 May while the ship was anchored approximately 9.5 nautical miles (18 km) northwest of Colombo while awaiting port entry. The Navy believes a chemical cargo was the cause of the fire.

The Colombo court banned the captain, chief mechanic and assistant engineer from leaving the country. The government said it would file a lawsuit against the ship’s owners for compensation.

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