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Ecological disaster looms as oil tanker starts to break up off coast of Spain

The stricken oil tanker Prestige was breaking up and in danger of sinking off the Spanish coast last night, as Madrid and London clashed over responsibility for the spillage that threatens ecological disaster to a major fishing region.

Tugs had hauled the vessel with 77,000 tons of sulphur-rich oil aboard, 65 miles from the coast of Galicia, leaving two large slicks behind. But as a 35-metre crack in the hull appeared and widened, the three crew-members still on board were helicoptered to safety in La Coruna. Spain's Deputy Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, said the Bahamas-flagged Prestige had docked in Gibraltar on 13 June, and was heading back to the British colony from Latvia when it ran into difficulties on Wednesday in a storm off north-western Spain.

The Spanish EU Transport Commissioner, Loyola de Palacio, said yesterday: "We are dealing with yet another case of tax evasion, contraband and inappropriate activities by Gibraltar."

She condemned "flags of convenience and unscrupulous people who run ships that are veritable ecological timebombs". She suggested that Britain might be fined for "failing to carry out its responsibilities" in connection with the crippled vessel.

Mr Rajoy said he would ask Britain to explain "the non-compliance of community laws in the port of Gibraltar", since the Prestige took on fuel there and was subjected to no checks.

"The ship's Greek owners confirmed that Gibraltar was its final destination," Mr Rajoy said. The Gibraltar government yesterday denied it had any obligation to check the vessel, and denounced what it called European Union "suspicions" as "grave abuses".

Spain yesterday issued a diplomatic protest to Greece, Latvia, the US, the Bahamas and Britain. Britain's ambassador to Madrid, Peter Torry, insisted the ageing tanker had never docked in Gibraltar, an assertion denied by the Spanish merchant navy.

Mr Torry said the Prestige remained anchored off the Girbaltarian coast for six hours with the only purpose of loading fuel for its own motors.

"In these circumstances, there is no obligation whatever, either in the EU or international framework to submit the vessel to a routine inspection," he said.