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Tunisia: “no leak” of diesel from the wrecked tanker

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In the aftermath of the sinking of an oil tanker in the Gulf of Gabès, divers carried out this Sunday an inspection of the hull to measure the risk of pollution. “No leak” was detected, according to them.

“No leak” detected: divers inspected the hull of the tanker, which sank the day before near Gabes, off the southeastern coast of Tunisia, on Sunday and found no leakage of its 750-tonne cargo of diesel, the Tunisian authorities said. According to the divers, the ship “sinked to almost 20 meters deep, in a horizontal position and does not show any cracks”, reported in a press release the Tunisian Ministry of the Environment, adding that “no leak was found on the cargo of diesel”.

The team of divers was “accompanied by the captain and the mechanic of the ship, who know the configuration of the ship”, specified to AFP, Mohamed Karray, spokesman for the public prosecutor’s office of Gabès, who opened an investigation into the causes of the accident.

The oil tanker Xelo, which left the port of Damietta in Egypt and was heading for Malta, sank on Saturday in Tunisian waters where it had taken refuge the previous evening due to bad weather conditions. The 58 meter long by 9 wide ship began to take on water in the engine room. The authorities then proceeded to evacuate the seven crew members, before the sinking of the Xelo at dawn.

On a video from the Ministry of the Environment on Sunday, we only see the tip of a mast emerging from the waves. The zone, controlled by the army, is inaccessible to the press.

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Delicate operation

According to the Minister of Transport, Rabie el Majidi, during the rescue, the rescuers “made sure to close the holds to avoid diesel leaks and the divers found that they are intact”. Floating anti-pollution booms have already been installed on a perimeter of 200 meters around the wreck. But the priority of the authorities remains the pumping of diesel.

It is “very difficult for divers to identify the exits (from the holds) to carry out the pumping”, explained to the press the Minister of Transport, while minimizing the extent of the risks: “750 tonnes of diesel, that’s is nothing” and “diesel evaporates easily in the sun”.

The authorities said they were studying “the offers received to help them” for the pumping, also from abroad. “The Italian ambassador (in Tunisia, editor’s note) Lorenzo Fanara was contacted this Sunday by the Tunisian authorities and the Italian government immediately decided to send a pollution control vessel and a team of specialized divers”, indicated diplomatic sources to AFP.

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Ship investigation

Pending the pumping of the cargo, conservation organization WWF has warned of “a new environmental catastrophe” in an area which is a fishing ground for “about 34,000 sailors” and has suffered from episodes of pollution, in particular due to the phosphate industries and the presence of an oil pipeline, in recent decades. Tunisian officials are also interested in the course of the ship, built in 1977 and flying the flag of Equatorial Guinea, and its owners: a Turk and a Libyan, according to the Gabes prosecutor’s office.

The “bill of lading”, an important document (on the ship’s trajectory and cargo, editor’s note) was left on the ship by the crew,” said Environment Minister Leila Chikhaoui.

The Ministry of Transport seeks to “verify the exact nature of the vessel’s activity and its route over the past few weeks”. According to this ministry, the Xelo was stationed from April 4 to 8 in the Tunisian port of Sfax, north of Gabès, “to change crew, refuel and make light repairs, without loading or unloading”. Local media have recalled the proximity of the Gulf of Gabès to Libya, a major oil-producing country, whose coasts have been the scene of hydrocarbon trafficking in recent years.

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