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 Saturday, 4 January, 2003, 17:00 GMT
Tides drive oil onto French coast
Volunteers pick up pieces of oil on the beach of Mimizan
Clean-up workers are already out on some beaches
High tides have swept masses of oil globules onto France's south-western coast, frustrating efforts by clean-up crews to stem the burgeoning environmental disaster.

French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin visits the coast
These beaches are magnificent... to see it soiled in this way, it's revolting

Jean-Pierre Raffarin
Tests have confirmed that the oil is part of the leaking cargo of the Prestige, a tanker which sank off the coast of Spain in November.

French cleanup workers say that high tides are washing clumps of oil onto beaches, and a major slick is reported to be about a hundred kilometres offshore.

The French Coastguard says trawlers will begin to scoop oil from the slick later on Saturday.

The worst hit area is the Landes region, south of Bordeaux, where about 100 soldiers and emergency workers have been mobilised to combat the spill.

"It's a catastrophe," the Mayor of the town of Lege-Cap-Ferret, Michel Sammarcelli, told the French news agency AFP.

"We had cleared the beaches but it's still coming. There is so much now that there are long black strips everywhere, and in some places the entire beach has gone black."

Experts are being sent to the affected areas and ministers have outlined plans to inspect more ships known to be carrying hazardous materials which pass through French ports.

'Hooligans'

The exercise to clear the oil is part of a package of emergency measures announced by the French Government.

The country has already pledged 50m euros ($52m) and a force of 100 emergency workers to fight the slick threatening south-western France.

Those responsible for the environmental damage have been accused of "barbarity" by the Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

While President Jacques Chirac has angrily condemned the businessmen responsible for the oil spill as the "hooligans of the sea".

Second source?

Globules of oil have begun washing ashore on beaches in the Landes region, but also further north on the resort islands of Ile de Re and Ile d'Oleron.

The affected areas lie well north of where the Prestige sank.

Tests on Friday indicated that some of the oil did not come from the Prestige, leading to speculation that opportunistic captains were illegally dumping oil in the hope that authorities would assume it came from the sunken tanker.

French officials expect a large slick to hit the coast soon.

"If these winds continue to blow, this pollution will arrive on a vast scale very soon," said Christian Fremont, the prefect of the south-western Aquitaine region.

Mr Raffarin expressed anger as he toured the area on Friday.

"These beaches are magnificent... to see it soiled in this way, it's revolting," he said.

Attack on 'corruption'

Mr Chirac expressed similar sentiments earlier in the day.

Jacques Chirac
Mr Chirac sympathised with people in affected areas

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.

France itself was censured shortly before the Prestige disaster by the European Union for failing to inspect ships in its ports adequately.

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.

Leaks

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

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.

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

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.

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  ON THIS STORY
  The BBC's James Coomarasamy
"More and more oil is hitting France's beaches"
Spain's coast and maritime fauna are threatened by the oil spill from the break-up of the Prestige

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03 Jan 03 | Europe
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