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Stricken cargo ship leaking oil off Devon

Experts are fighting to avert an ecological disaster as a stricken cargo ship began leaking oil off Devon.

As many as 200 containers - three of which are thought to contain dangerous substances such as battery acid - have also washed into the sea.

Twenty six crew had to be rescued in savage weather conditions on Thursday after the MSC Napoli was holed and the engine room flooded 40 miles south-east of Lizard Point.

In one of the biggest operations of recent times for 771 Search and Rescue Squadron, Royal Navy helicopter crews winched the sailors to safety amid 40ft waves and winds of up to 60mph.

The 62,000-tonne ship, carrying 2,400 containers - 157 of which are said to contain hazardous chemicals such as perfume, ethanol, pesticides and toxic liquids - as well as thousands of tonnes of heavy fuel, was being towed to Portland when severe structural failure forced the salvage teams to deliberately run it aground near the town of Sidmouth.

Last night anti-pollution teams were working alongside salvage workers and the RSPCA as it was reported the ship was leaking oil. Already there have been reports of spills along the Devon coastline, contaminated sea birds, and more than 20 containers broken up on the beach.

"We are very concerned about the effects of any pollution on our World Heritage coastline, and are doing everything we can to support the Coastguard Agency in a fast and efficient clean-up of the debris," said the environment spokeswoman on East Devon Council, Margaret Rogers. "Clearly the situation is changing rapidly, and we are in close contact with the other agencies to ensure we provide an appropriate response to any reports, once they have been confirmed," she added.

Robin Middleton, the secretary of state's representative for maritime, salvage and intervention, said: "The salvage plan is concerned with the oils which we deem to be the greater threat. They include diesel and 3,500 tonnes of heavy fuel oil."

While the bulk of the oil is cargo, he explained, there was a leak from the Napoli's own fractured tanks or overflow reserves in the engine space - a supply of around 200 tonnes .

Mr Middleton said that the decision to tow the vessel towards the English coastline was taken to avoid any chance of it sinking in deeper water which would have been "a greater threat to the environment".

Salvage adviser Jim Chubb confirmed that three of the lost containers held dangerous substances believed to be perfume, battery acid and car airbag gas release bottles.

Yesterday - as crowds gathered to look at the heavily listing ship - police closed off Branscombe Beach and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency warned the public to stay away from any containers and report any sightings.

An eight-person salvage team boarded the Napoli yesterday while divers were flown in to join them. Anti-pollution experts said they were hoping to start pumping the oil out today.

Julian Wardlaw, team leader for the Environment Agency, said: "We have an extremely sensitive bit of coastline and we are working to make sure that damage is minimised."

The ship, previously named CMA-CGM Normandie according to the DNV Exchange, had run aground in Vietnam in 2001. It subsequently had to undergo "major repairs", according to Tore Hoifodt, senior vice president at DNV, which classes and inspects a fifth of the world's cargo fleet.

But yesterday officials said that the 16-year-old ship, which is registered in London, had met safety standards when it was last inspected by the Coastguard Agency in May 2005.