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 Friday, 3 January, 2003, 12:44 GMT
Chirac attacks 'oil hooligans'
Volunteers pick up pieces of oil on the beach of Mimizan
Clean-up workers are already out on some beaches
French President Jacques Chirac has angrily criticised "hooligan" businessmen responsible for oil spills such as the Prestige disaster now menacing France's Atlantic coast.

He was addressing residents of the region of south-west France where thousands of lumps of oil from the tanker, which sank off Spain in November, have begun to pollute tourist beaches.

Captains, owners, charterers of floating dustbins; classification companies, insurers of such ships; companies managing flags of convenience must be prosecuted

Jacques Chirac
He said France and Europe would not allow "corrupt businessmen" to continue exploiting the weaknesses of the current system of checking oil tankers.

His comments came a day after France announced a criminal inquiry to find and prosecute those responsible for the disaster.

Some 20,000 tonnes of oil have escaped from the Liberian-registered Prestige, an ageing single-hulled tanker, which broke in two before it sank.

High winds

French officials say 100 small oil slicks are bearing down on the French Atlantic coast like a "sword of Damocles" that will hang over the country for some time to come.

Jacques Chirac
Mr Chirac sympathised with people in affected areas
"We cannot just be resigned to these disasters," he said.

"They are not inevitable, they are the result of human actions that go unchecked."

The two halves of the Prestige are lying on the seabed 130 nautical miles west of Spain.

Oil from the cargo continues to leak from cracks in the hull, despite the efforts of a French submarine to plug the gaps.

Oiled seabirds

The oil has devastated fishing grounds and beaches in north-west Spain, and has been driven across the Bay of Biscay to France by high winds.

"Captains, owners, charterers of floating dustbins; classification companies, insurers of such ships; companies managing flags of convenience must be prosecuted and must be punished by the courts in exemplary manner," Mr Chirac said.

He said he had sent Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin to visit the area to ensure that everything necessary was being done to combat the spills.

The area worst affected stretches south from the Gironde estuary to Arcachon, near Bordeaux.

Oil lumps have also been found on the chic islands of Ile de Re and Ile d'Oleron, north of the estuary.

More than 170 dead seabirds have been found on the French coast, and more than 100 injured birds - including guillemots, gannets, kittiwakes and puffins - have been sent for treatment.

Spain's coast and maritime fauna are threatened by the oil spill from the break-up of the Prestige

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