A massive oil tanker on fire off the eastern coast of Sri Lanka is being towed out to sea amid fears of a major new oil spill in the Indian Ocean.
The Panamanian-registered vessel, which began burning on Thursday, is carrying about 270,000 tonnes of crude oil.
Sri Lanka’s navy and India’s coastguard have attempted to douse the blaze with water cannon and helicopter drops.
One Filipino crew member died in an engine room explosion that sparked the fire, the Sri Lankan navy said.
The remaining 22 crew, consisting of five Greeks and 17 Filipinos, were taken off the ship, officials said.
The 330-metre (1,080-foot) vessel – the New Diamond – is owned by Liberia-based Porto Emporios Shipping Inc.
A spokesperson for the Navy said on Friday there was no immediate threat of an oil spill, but that in the event of a spill Sri Lanka would “definitely need international support”.
The navy also said that the Indian coast guard had observed a 2m crack in the New Diamond’s hull about 10m above the water line.
Dharshani Lahandapura, the chair of Sri Lanka’s Marine Environmental Protection Authority (MEPA), warned that an oil spill from the ship would be “one of the biggest environmental disasters not only in the region but in the world”.
She said the MEPA would take legal action against the owners of the ship in the event of a spill.
“We have lodged a complaint with the area police and sought the attorney general’s advice on the matter,” she said.
Sudantha Ranasinghe, the head of Sri Lanka’s Disaster Management Centre, said the situation was “not as bad as it seems”.
“The fire has not spread to the cargo. Once the fire is put out, the vessel will be towed further away into deeper waters,” he told the AFP news agency.
The New Diamond issued a distress call from about 60km (38 miles) off Sri Lanka’s east coast, after the fire began. The ship was on its way from Kuwait to the eastern Indian port of Paradip.
The stricken vessel began drifting towards the shore, prompting navy vessels to begin towing it further out.
The Maldives, about 1,000km (625 miles) southwest of Sri Lanka, has a large coral eco-system in its waters and expressed concern over a potential spill.
“Maldives needs to watch this oil spill carefully and take all precautions to prevent it from reaching her shores,” Ahmed Naseem, Maldivian minister at the president’s office, wrote on Twitter.
A Japanese carrier, MV Wakashio, crashed into a reef in Mauritius in July, eventually leaking more than 1,000 tonnes of oil into surrounding waters.