The prime minister of Mauritius has declared a state of environmental emergency and appealed to France for urgent assistance as oil from a grounded cargo ship spills unabated into the island nation's protected waters.
Rough seas have hampered efforts to stop fuel leaking from the bulk carrier MV Wakashio, which ran aground two weeks ago, and is polluting pristine waters in an ecologically critical marine area off the southeast coast.
"A state of environmental emergency has been declared," Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth posted on his Twitter account late Friday.
The tanker, belonging to a Japanese company, was carrying 3,800 tonnes of fuel when it struck a reef at Pointe d'Esny, an internationally-listed conservation site near the turquoise waters of the Blue Bay marine park.
The environment ministry announced this week that oil had begun seeping from the hull, as volunteers rushed to the coast to prepare for the worst.
Poor weather hampers salvage efforts
Leaking oil has already damaged the coral reefs, lagoons and white-sand shores upon which Mauritius has built its reputation as a green tourism destination. Aerial images showed the scale of the damage, with huge stretches of azure sea stained black by the spill.
A spokesman at Mitsui OSK Lines, which operates the vessel, said fuel was being airlifted by helicopter from the stricken bulker to shore but poor weather was complicating matters.
"We tried to place a containment boom near the ship but it's not working well due to high waves," the spokesman told the French AFP news agency in Tokyo on Saturday. Some of the fuel was in separate tanks and may not be at risk of leaking, he added.
Urgent appeal for help from France
Prime Minister Jugnauth, after touring the disaster site, expressed fears the crisis could worsen with bad weather forecast over the weekend. He made an urgent appeal for help.
"The sinking of the Wakashio represents a danger for Mauritius. Our country does not have the skills and expertise to refloat stranded ships, so I have requested the help of France" and its president, Emmanuel Macron.
In a statement issued Saturday, the French embassy in Mauritius said a military aircraft from the nearby French Indian Ocean island of Reunion would make two trips to the disaster area with pollution control equipment. Two experts would also be aboard, the statement added.
Twenty crew members were evacuated safely from the ship when it ran aground on 25 July.