Sri Lanka seeks UN help in assessing damage from ship fire

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka’s government is seeking help from the United Nations and other countries in assessing the environmental damage caused by a fire on a container ship carrying chemicals that is sinking off its capital, officials said Tuesday.

The 12-day fire on the MV X-Press Pearl ravaged the vessel, destroyed most of its cargo and caused severe pollution in the ocean and along a long stretch of the island nation’s famed beaches.

State Minister of Urban Development and Coast Conservation Nalaka Godahewa said the government has contacted the U.N. and some other countries because “expertise within the country isn’t sufficient to accurately calculate the damage.” He did not identify the other countries.

The U.N. has pledged to send three experts who are scheduled to arrive on Wednesday, Godahewa said. One will assess damage suffered by the economy.

On Saturday, Sri Lanka said it is seeking an interim claim of $40 million from the ship’s operator, X-Press Feeders, to cover part of the cost of fighting the fire.

The fire broke out on the Singapore-flagged ship on May 20 when it was anchored about 9.5 nautical miles (18 kilometers) northwest of Colombo and waiting to enter the port.

The Sri Lankan navy believes the blaze was caused by its chemical cargo, which included 25 tons of nitric acid. Debris including burned fiberglass and tons of plastic pellets have polluted nearby beaches, and there are concerns that a spill of the remaining chemicals and oil on the ship could devastate marine life.

Authorities extinguished the fire last week, but the ship then began sinking and attempts to tow it into deeper waters failed when its stern rested on the seabed.

On Tuesday, the ship’s operator said its “bow and forecastle deck are now submerged, and the forward section of the hull continues to slowly settle to the seabed at a depth of 21 meters (70 feet).”

Police arrested the ship’s Russian captain, Tyutkalo Vitaly, on Monday. He appeared before a magistrate and was later released on bail. The court banned him from leaving the country. The case will be heard again on July 1.

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