ILYICH, Russia, Nov 12 (Reuters) Russian rescue helicopters searched for five missing seamen today after a storm in the northern mouth of the Black Sea, while a slick of oil from a sunken tanker began washing onto beaches.
Rescue officials said three people died in the storm that struck the narrow straits between the Black Sea and the Azov Sea yesterday, sinking a small oil tanker and at least four freighters and leaving other ships stranded on the shoreline.
Birds seeking shelter on the shore near the centre of the storm were covered in a treacly mixture of oil and seaweed -- the first evidence of what one Russian official called an ''environmental disaster.'' The sea was calm again by today but at Novorossiisk, Russia's second biggest port for exports of oil and oil products, officials had ordered tankers not to dock because a second storm was on its way.
Nikolai Lityuk, regional head of Russia's Emergencies Ministry, said the navy had been called in to help with the search and rescue operation, and the clean-up.
''Our main aim is to find the ... people who are missing,'' he told reporters at the port of Kavkaz, where the operation's headquarters have been set up. ''The second objective is to deal with the consequences of the oil spill.'' Earlier, rescue officials had said they were searching for eight missing seamen but this was revised to five after three bodies were recovered.
''Three helicopters and 11 rescue ships are taking part in the (search) operation,'' Emergencies Ministry spokesman Viktor Beltsov told Reuters by telephone.
OIL-COVERED BIRDS The oil spill came from the Volgoneft-139, a small Russian oil tanker which broke in two during the storm when it was off the Ukrainian port of Kerch.
Officials said it had spilled at least 1,300 tonnes of fuel oil. In cold weather, the thick, treacly substance is liable to sink to the seabed instead of dispersing, making the clean-up harder.
The tanker was carrying 4,000 tonnes of fuel oil in total when it was hit by the storm. A spill of over 700 tonnes is considered large, but the biggest ones run into the tens or even hundreds of thousands.
At the coastal settlement of Ilyich, halfway between Kavkaz and Novorossiisk, about 100 workers were on the beach using shovels and a bulldozer to scrape globules of oil off the sand.
''This oil came in last night, along a 13 km stretch,'' said Alexander Mikhalkov, foreman of the clean-up crew.
A flock of about 1,000 rails, a species of wetland bird, were huddled on the beach, unable to fly because their feathers were coated with oil. Some were unable to stand.
Cleanup workers said wild dogs had been taking advantage of the birds' condition to attack them. A Reuters reporter found a number of the birds on the beach with their heads torn off.
Oleg Mitvol, deputy head of Russia's environment agency Rosprirodnadzor, said the spill could take years to fix. ''This is a very serious environmental disaster,'' he said yesterday.
Russian officials said shipping in the area had been warned well in advance of heavy storms but some captains had ignored the advice and put to sea.
The polluted area is at the heart of the migration route from central Siberia into the Black Sea of red-throated and black-throated Siberian diver birds.
REUTERS PD HS1738