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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 January 2007, 17:58 GMT
Police crack down on scavengers
Photograph sent in by reader Roger Sharp
Debris is strewn across the beach. Picture: Roger Sharp.
The "despicable" behaviour of scavengers has forced the authorities to invoke ancient legislation to stop raids on cargo on a Devon beach.

Powers not used for 100 years will be used to force people to return goods recovered from the stricken container ship MSC Napoli.

Separate laws will also be used to ban the public from Branscombe beach.

The police said organised gangs were targeting the beach and were behind some of the worst looting.

Over the last two days scavengers have descended on the beach, taking away goods that included BMW motorbikes, wine, face cream and nappies.

Officers closed roads to the beach to deter treasure-seekers and to allow contractors to start the clear-up operation, which is expected to begin at 0700 GMT on Wednesday.

That meant people had to walk several miles to the beach but that did not deter about 200 scavengers who were rummaging through the cargo.

The numbers dwindled later after the beach was sealed off by a 100ft-long metal fence.

'Sheer greed'

Mark Rodaway, the Acting Receiver of Wreck, said the "despicable" behaviour of scavengers had persuaded him that special powers dating back to the Merchant Shipping Act 1854 were needed to force people to return goods.

"Personal belongings, not goods for sale, were being rifled through and strewn on the beach.

"I would ask anyone to reflect quietly on how they would feel if that was their belongings.

"From what I witnessed it was clear that there was no intent to store safely or record goods with the appropriate authorities, as such we will be utilising legislation available to prevent people removing more goods and if necessary using the law to prosecute people through the courts."

HAVE YOUR SAY
Let them keep what they find. They are removing rubbish from the beach!
Ken Bolton, Manchester

Pc Sharon Newman, of Devon and Cornwall Police, said local people had had "their whole world turned upside down".

It was organised gangs travelling from miles away who were responsible for much of the looting, she said.

Pc Newman rejected suggestions that the police had not acted quickly enough to stop the looting, saying they did not yet have the power to remove people from the beach or issue search warrants to recover items.

She was unable to say when those powers would be introduced.

THE LAW ON SCAVENGING
You must fill in a form with your contact details and what you found
The Receiver of Wreck decides whether to reunite owner and property
A reward can be offered to the finder
The finder must keep the goods safe for 28 days
Not giving the goods back can lead to a 2,500 fine

A phone number and e-mail address will be issued on Wednesday for people who want to return recovered goods.

The Receiver of the Wreck also has the authority to offer a reward for information on the whereabouts of location of recovered goods.

Coastguard officials have accused scavengers of "sheer greed".

That view was reflected by one family who were shocked to see pictures of their belongings being looted from one crate on the beach.

Anita and Jan Bokdal's possessions were being transported on the MSC Napoli from their native Sweden to South Africa, where they have bought a winery.

They were horrified to see pictures in the media of their belongings, including photographs, family heirlooms and clothing for poor communities in South Africa, being emptied on to the beach.

Photograph sent in by reader Dan Regan, Exeter
People spent hours rummaging through the debris

She said the police should have done more to stop the looters.

"For me it's stealing our things....as far as I know the police should have been there in the beginning and stopped this. The law must do something about it, " said Mrs Bokdal.

Later she learned that she will be reunited with some of her belongings because a member of the public had reported them to the authorities.

Seabirds affected

Under the Merchant Shipping Act 1995, it is an offence for people to remove items from a wreck if they conceal or keep possession of cargo and refuse to surrender it.

People must fill out a form to tell the authorities what they have removed and they must store it for 28 days in case the owners want it back.

But some of the items plundered from the container ship have already been listed on the internet auction website eBay.

BMW steering wheel airbags - advertised as coming from the Napoli - were up for sale online.

A team of divers plugged a gap in the ship after fuel oil started leaking.

The process of heating thick fuel oil on the ship to turn it into a consistency that can be pumped on to another vessel is due to start.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency said it may take a week to pump 3,500 metric tons of oil to stop more leaks from the ship.

And it may take up to a year to lift the 2,318 containers on the vessel and recover those that have fallen to the bottom of the sea.

The Napoli suffered structural damage during last Thursday's storms and was deliberately grounded a mile off Branscombe to stop it breaking up in deep water.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reported that 900 guillemots and 200 gulls had been found suffering from the effects of oil. Some have been found up to 25 miles away, near Torbay.

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The actions that led to the crackdown on scavengers



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