Three-way fight for world's biggest sunken treasure

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The Independent Online

Three nations are fighting overthe world's greatest hoard of sunken treasure. More than 300 years after the warship HMS Sussex sank off Gibraltar carrying gold coins worth £2.4bn, Britain, Spain and the US are claiming the treasure.

With 80 guns and a crew of 500, the Sussex was the British navy's flagship when, in February 1694, it was wrecked in a storm as it headed towards the Mediterraneanon a secret mission to persuade the Italian Duke of Savoy to join the international alliance against France, with which Britain was then at war.

The Sussex was lost until 1995, when a researcher handed a US-based salvage firm called Odyssey a letter, written shortly after the sinking, that gave the first hint of the ship's cargo.

Odyssey began searching for the wreck in 1998, and four years later announced it had discovered it half a mile beneath the surface. The Florida-based company signed an agreement with the British Government to raise the ship.

Spain, however, which has long claimed Gibraltar as its own, soon demanded a cut of the treasure. The Odyssey mission, which began in earnest on 12 December, was hampered by the arrival of Spanish ships - dangerously close, the company said, to its main vessel the Odyssey Explorer, which it has temporarily removed to safer waters.

Co-founder Greg Stemm said: "The company is planning to file legal action against boat operators who have endangered their own vessels, the company's ship Odyssey Explorer and its crew by violating numerous maritime regulations."

A spokesman for the MoD last week reiterated British ownership of the Sussex and of its precious cargo.

"It remains the property of the Crown, irrespective of it being a wreck or where it lies," he said.