Fuel-laden ship sinks off Tunisia coast

TUNIS: A tanker carrying 750 tonnes of diesel fuel from Egypt to Malta sank on Saturday (Apr 16) in the Gulf of Gabes off Tunisia’s south-east coast, sparking a rush to avoid a spill.

“The ship sank this morning in Tunisian territorial waters. For the moment, there is no leak,” local court spokesman Mohamed Karray said.

A disaster prevention committee would meet in the coming hours “to decide on the measures to be taken”, he added.

The Equatorial Guinea-flagged Xelo was headed from the Egyptian port of Damietta to the European island of Malta when it requested entry to Tunisian waters on Friday evening due to bad weather.

The tanker is 58m long and 9m wide, according to ship monitoring website vesseltracker.com.

It began taking water around 7km offshore in the Gulf of Gabes and the engine room was engulfed, according to a Tunisian environment ministry statement.

It said Tunisian authorities evacuated the seven-member crew.

Environment minister Leila Chikhaoui was travelling to Gabes “to evaluate the situation … and to take necessary preventive decisions in coordination with the regional authorities”, a ministry statement said.

Authorities have activated “the national emergency plan for the prevention of marine pollution with the aim of bringing the situation under control and avoiding the spread of pollutants”.

Court spokesman Karray said the Georgian captain, four Turks and two Azerbaijanis were briefly hospitalised for checks and were now in a hotel.

The defence, interior, transport and customs ministries were working to avoid “a marine environmental disaster in the region and limit its impact”, the environment ministry said.

Before the ship sank, the ministry had described the situation as “alarming” but “under control”.

The Gulf of Gabes was traditionally a fishing area but activists say it has suffered from pollution due to phosphate processing industries based near the city of Gabes.

The last maritime accident involving the country was in October 2018, when Tunisian freighter Ulysse slammed into the Cyprus-based Virginia anchored about 30km off the northern tip of the French island of Corsica, sending hundreds of tonnes of fuel spilling into the Mediterranean.

It took several days of maritime manoeuvres to disentangle the boats and pump some 520 cubic metres of propulsion fuel, which had escaped tanks.