Cargo ship sinks off Sri Lanka amid fears of environmental disaster

A chemical-laden cargo ship is sinking off the coast of Sri Lanka amid fears of a major environmental disaster.

The Singapore-registered X-Press Pearl has been on fire for almost two weeks.

Some hundreds of tonnes of engine oil could leak into the sea if the ship sinks, with devastating impact on marine life.

The Sri Lankan and Indian navies had worked jointly over the past days in an attempt to put out the fire and prevent the ship from breaking up and sinking.

But rough seas and monsoonal winds hampered the operation.

“The ship is sinking. Salvers are trying to tow the ship to deep sea before it sinks to minimise the marine pollution but the rear area of the ship has drifted,” Sri Lanka Navy spokesman Captain Indika Silva told the BBC.

The coastal stretch near the city of Negombo – home to some of the country’s most pristine beaches – has already seen oil and debris pollution for days.

Meanwhile, the State Minister of Fisheries has suspended ships from entering from the Negombo Lagoon and fishing from Panadura to Negombo with immediate effect since the salvage company said the ship was sinking at the current position.

He also said that emergency measures had been taken to protect the lagoon and surrounding areas to contain the damage from any debris or in case of an oil leak.

X-Press Shipping – the Singapore based company which owns the vessel – confirmed the crew had been aware of the leak, but said they were denied permission by both Qatar and India to leave the ship there before the fire broke out.

The fact that Sri Lanka allowed the vessel to enter its waters after it was rejected by two other nations has led to widespread public anger.

Officials have lodged a police complaint against the captain of the ship, who was rescued along with other crew members last week.

Sri Lanka police on Tuesday said they questioned the captain and the engineer of the ship for more than 14 hours.

A court issued an order preventing the captain, chief engineer and the additional engineer from leaving the country.

The Singapore-flagged container vessel, anchored off Colombo port, first reported a fire on board due to a chemical leak in one of its containers.

The 186m-long vessel – operated by the largest feeder operator in the world, X-Press Feeders – was carrying 1,486 containers with 25 tons of nitric acid, several other chemicals and cosmetics from the port of Hazira, India on 15 May.

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