Page last updated at 16:53 GMT, Friday, 27 June 2008 17:53 UK

Toxic find halts Philippine dive

Philippine divers at the site of the sunken ferry MV Princess of the Stars on Wednesday
The toxic discovery has made a difficult operation even more taxing

The operation to recover hundreds of bodies inside a sunken Philippine ferry has been suspended after a highly toxic pesticide was found to be on board.

Ten tonnes of endosulfan were illegally in the cargo, destined for a Del Monte pineapple plantation, officials said.

Whether the ferry operator, Sulpicio Lines, knew of the toxic cargo is unclear, though a senior official warned it could face prosecution.

Only 56 of more than 850 passengers are known to have survived the disaster.

The MV Princess of the Stars controversially left Manila harbour on 21 June despite the approaching Typhoon Fengshen.

Additional danger

It ran aground off Sibuyan island in the central Philippines, and is thought to have sunk in under 30 minutes, leaving hundreds of passengers trapped inside.

The divers who have been working in dark and dangerous conditions all week to remove the dead from the upturned ferry are now faced with a new threat, says the BBC's Michael Barker in Manila.

Exposure to endosulfan, an insecticide, has been blamed for mental and genetic disorders, skin diseases and nervous disorders, and even death.

Vice-President Noli de Castro said the consignment aboard the ferry had been bound for pineapple plantations of Del Monte Philippines.

He said the ferry operator had "a lot to answer for", AFP news agency reported, and warned it could face legal action over the breach.

Del Monte Philippines said in a statement: "While this cargo is owned by Del Monte Philippines, it was still enroute for delivery to Del Monte and was therefore outside its control at the time of the accident."

The firm said that, unknown to Del Monte Philippines, the endosulfan cargo had been loaded by Sulpicio Lines on to the wrong vessel.

The statement continued: "Upon learning that our cargo was loaded in the ill-fated MV Princess of the Stars, we immediately informed the Fertiliser and Pesticide Authority."

Challenging operation

Officials have imposed a fishing ban in the waters around the stricken vessel, but said tests so far had shown no sign of the chemical.

Alexander de la Cruz holds up pictures of missing family members on Sibuyan island on Friday
The delay means extra agony for relatives of those missing

The suspension of dive operations means the recovery of bodies, which had been expected to take a month, is now likely to take even longer, with more agony for relatives of those lost.

Special chemical-resistant diving suits have been ordered from Singapore to help trace the chemical cargo.

But the operation will be difficult - only the tip of the seven-storey ship's bow is above the water line, with the stern resting on the edge of a reef. At least 100,000 litres of fuel are also thought to be on board.

The sinking is one of the country's worst maritime disasters, and a marine inquiry is underway into the cause of the tragedy.

Sulpicio Lines has figured in three other previous sea disasters, including a collision between a ferry and an oil tanker in 1987 that killed over 4,000 people.

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