Page last updated at 12:12 GMT, Monday, 12 April 2010 13:12 UK

Australia refloats China ship stranded off Barrier Reef

Shen Neng 1 leaking oil in the Great Barrier Reef (4 April 2010)
Officials say the ship was clearly off course when it became stranded

A Chinese coal ship that became stranded near the Great Barrier Reef has been refloated, officials say.

The Shen Neng 1 ran aground off the coast of Queensland this month and began leaking oil, sparking fears of an ecological disaster.

The damage was contained but Australia has said it will prosecute the ship's owners for taking an illegal route.

State officials say they may increase fines given to the owners of ships that cause oil spills in the reserve.

Some 1,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil were pumped off the Shen Neng before salvage teams managed to refloat it.

Officials said its hull would be inspected and its stability tested before it was towed to safe anchorage.

Earlier, a spokesman for Maritime Safety Queensland said the operation had to be carried out urgently as the weather was likely to deteriorate later in the day, increasing the risk of further oil leaks.

"Doing nothing at the moment is not an option. We would need to try to move that vessel before the swell and the wind increases tomorrow afternoon," said Patrick Quirk.

'Throw the book'

The Australian authorities have launched an investigation into how the ship, carrying coal to China from the Australian port of Gladstone, ended up stranded on the Barrier Reef on 4 April.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said it was "outrageous" that the ship apparently strayed off course.

On Sunday, Transport Minister Anthony Albanese said Australian prosecutors would be "throwing the book" at those responsible.

"It is quite clear this vessel went on a course that was unlawful," he said.

"The Australian government will ensure that the full force of the law is brought to bear on those responsible... and we will also ensure compensation is paid with regard to the cost of cleaning up."

Queensland State Premier Anna Bligh, meanwhile, has said she is considering increasing the amount companies are fined for allowing oil spill from A$1.7m ($1.6m:£1m) to A$10m.

Ms Bligh said the increase would "send a message to the thousands of ship crews who pass through Queensland waters that nothing but the greatest attention to safety and care will be tolerated".

Map of Queensland showing where ship is stranded

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