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Crew use life rafts to escape from blazing ship

Nearly 100 people were saved from a blazing ship today in a dramatic rescue operation.

All but 13 of the crew on board the factory fishing vessel escaped on life rafts and were picked up by a passing ship.

The remainder - firefighting crew - have brought the blaze under control, the ship's owners said.

The fire broke out at around 6am as the Athena sailed to its next fishing area and was about 230 miles south-west of the Isles of Scilly.

The coastguard was alerted and nearby ships asked to come to the Athena's aid, with one vessel, the Vega, taking 98 crew members on board after they successfully disembarked using the life rafts. There were no reports of any injuries.

The ship's owners, Faroe Islands-based shipping company Thor, said in a statement: "Around 6am this morning a fire broke out on board Athena while she was sailing to her next fishing area.

"The fire appears to have started in packing material stored on the port side of the ship.

"The fire safety crew on board have remained on board to try to contain the situation.

"All but the 13 firefighting crew have abandoned the ship, and all are safe.

"The firefighting crew are safe and are in no immediate danger."

Thor chief executive officer, Hans Andrias Joensen, immediately contacted the ship after being made aware of the incident by the Falmouth coastguard at 6.22am.

A spokesman for Falmouth Coastguard, which co-ordinated the rescue, said: "At the moment 13 crew members remain on board the Athena, with 98 on the Vega.

"We've been very fortunate in this case that no-one was injured in the initial fire, or moving the crew to and from the life rafts.

"The 13 members on board continue to fight the fire as it is still ongoing, but they have it contained in a compartment and are able to operate the rest of the ship.

"The Athena is sailing under its own power towards the UK, travelling at a speed of about eight knots and is expected to arrive tomorrow. We currently believe it will come into Falmouth."

The coastguard said Chinese, Russian, Peruvian and Scandinavian personnel were among those on board.

A Royal Navy search and rescue helicopter was scrambled from 771 Naval Air Squadron at RNAS Culdrose, in Cornwall, but did not take part in the rescue.

A Falcon 50 fixed wing aircraft was scrambled from a French airfield to provide a communications link.