|RIGA - An ageing, rusty Russian oil tanker left Latvia early on Saturday, despite European protests, to sail the same route as a similar vessel which sank off Spain last year causing billions of dollars of damage.|
Madrid and the European Commission, which have expressed grave fears about the single-hull Geroi Sevastopolya, had asked the Baltic state to halt its departure from the Ventspils port and immediately adopt an EU ban on such vessels.
The tanker is 24 years old, almost as old as the single-hull Prestige, which discharged 63,000 tonnes of fuel oil when it sank off Spain\'s northwest coast in November last year.
\"The ship left port in the early hours,\" said Latvian maritime safety expert Gunars Steinerts who accompanied inspectors from Spain, France, Denmark and Britain to check the vessel on Friday for any fault that could stop its departure.
\"It was rusty, but not that critical,\" Steinerts said. \"I mean, it did pass through the inspection.\"
The EU banned single-hull tankers following the Prestige disaster, but the restriction only applies to vessels loading in EU ports. Latvia is due to join the European bloc next year.
The United Nation\'s International Maritime Organisation (IMO) - the world\'s top maritime body - is phasing out single-hull oil tankers, but the vessels will still be allowed to operate until April 2005.
The Sevastopolya, which is carrying 50,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil, is heading to Singapore.
Madrid said on Wednesday the tanker would not be permitted within Spain\'s 200 nautical mile exclusion zone and it would use its navy to stop the ship if needed.
Steinerts said the ship would sail the intended route, but stay outside Spanish waters. \"The plan is to go around Spanish waters,\" he said.
Shipping brokers told Reuters that California-based Westport Petroleum, a wholly owned subsidiary of Japan\'s Mitsui & Co, had chartered the tanker to carry the cargo to Singapore.
The Prestige spill caused billions of dollars in economic damage, and the WWF environmental group said it could harm fishing, tourism and natural habitats for a decade.
Story by Jorgen Johansson
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE