Russian oil tanker breaks up off Crimea

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MOSCOW, Nov 11 (Reuters) A severe storm broke a Russian oil tanker in two between the Azov and Black Seas, stranding 13 crew members and spilling fuel oil into the sea in what a Russian official said was an ''environmental disaster''.

The tanker, Volganeft-139, was on its way from the port of Azov in the southern Russian region of Rostov to Kerch in Ukraine's eastern Crimea when high waves broke its hull at around 0445 (0715 ITS) today, Russian media reported.

''According to preliminary data, some 1,300 tonnes of fuel oil could have spilt into the sea,'' Russia's state-run Vesti-24 channel quoted emergencies ministry officials as saying.

The tanker was carrying 4,000 tonnes of fuel oil in total, officials were quoted by media as saying.

The 13 crew members were drifting aboard the ship's stern in the Kerch strait, which runs between the Azov and Black Seas.

Efforts to reach them were hampered by the storm, which was gaining force.

''The wind is now blowing in the direction of Ukraine's coast, so it is our common problem,'' Oleg Mitvol, deputy head of the state Rosprirodnadzor agency, told Russia's state-run Vesti-24 channel today.

''This problem may take a few years to solve. Fuel oil is a heavy substance and it is now sinking to the seabed,'' he said.

''This is a very serious environmental disaster.'' The likely effects of the spill were not immediately clear.

When the oil tanker Prestige sank off Spain in November 2002, about 64,000 tonnes of fuel oil leaked, causing severe habitat damage to beaches in France, Spain and Portugal.

Almost at the same time as the Volganeft-139 broke up, a freighter carrying 2,000 tonnes of sulphur sank in the same storm, off the port of Kavkaz overlooking the Kerch Strait from the Russian side.

Its crew of eight had been rescued after drifting in a raft for a few hours. ''Sulphur is a very inert chemical, and we hope that in the water it will not form any substances dangerous to humans,'' Mitvol said.

As he spoke, news came of another oil tanker, Volganeft-123, the hull of which cracked after being hit by high waves.

Maxim Stepanenko, transport prosecutor of the nearby Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk, told Russian television this tanker was afloat and its oil products were not leaking.

REUTERS KK RN1552

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