Asia Pacific

Stricken Iranian oil tanker drifts into Japan’s economic zone, coast guard says

Reuters, AFP-JIJI

A stricken Iranian oil tanker drifted into Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) on Wednesday afternoon, a spokesman for the Japan Coast Guard said Friday, as strong winds pushed the burning ship away from the Chinese coast.

The ship, which has been burning for almost a week since it collided with another vessel on Saturday night, was about 300 kilometers (186 miles) northwest of Amami Oshima island as of Thursday afternoon, a coast guard spokesman said.

The tanker Sanchi was carrying almost 1 million barrels of condensate, an ultra-light, highly flammable crude oil, to South Korea.

He said that Chinese authorities turned down an offer from the Japanese Coast Guard to help, saying it would ask for help when needed.

Chinese firefighters spent Thursday struggling to extinguish the blaze as criticism mounted in Iran over whether enough was being done to locate dozens of its missing crew members.

One body has been found but 31 sailors — mainly Iranians — remain missing with officials in Iran hoping they have found sanctuary on an unaffected part of the vessel.

Cleanup and rescue ships have faced toxic fumes, rain and windy conditions as they scrambled to find survivors and avoid a massive oil slick since Saturday’s incident.

China’s transport ministry said Thursday evening the Panamanian-flagged 274-meter (899-foot) tanker remained on fire, adding two ships had spent the day spraying the vessel with retardant foam.

But rescue efforts were still being hampered by “terrible” weather conditions and toxic gases from the burning oil which “pose a great danger to rescuers,” the ministry said in a statement.

Of the 30 Iranians and two Bangladeshis on the Sanchi’s crew, only one body has so far been found and there has been no word from them since the collision.

Operated by Iran’s National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC), the vessel was taking light crude oil condensate to South Korea.

On Thursday the Iranian Merchant Mariners Syndicate, an industry NGO, said it had written to Chinese authorities expressing frustration at the lack of progress in putting out the fire.

“It was clear that the Chinese are not cooperating enough,” IMMS Vice President Saman Rezaie told AFP.

Iranian news website Khabar Online published video interviews with some of the relatives of those missing.

“I don’t know what else to say but just beg them to rescue them as I am sure that they are alive inside,” said one woman, who identified herself as the wife of the Sanchi’s chief engineer.

Other relatives said they thought the fire should have been extinguished by now.

An NITC spokesperson had previously suggested China might be more concerned with stopping a major oil leak in waters important to their fishing industry than rushing to save crew members.

The 21 Chinese crew membesr of the Crystal, which did not burst into flames, were all rescued.