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Robots set to remove Prestige oil

Oil leaks from a crack in the hull

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MADRID, Spain (Reuters) -- Spain is to use submersible robots and a fleet of shuttles to remove thousands of tonnes of fuel oil from the wreck of the tanker Prestige, which broke in half and sank off its northwestern coast just over a year ago.

The 26-year old tanker spilled much of its 77,000 tonne cargo when it went down some 250 kilometers (140 miles) off the Galician coast causing the country's worst environmental disaster, the government said on Friday.

The area's picturesque beaches were coated in sticky fuel oil and fishing was suspended, while oil continued to leak from the ship, which lies nearly four kilometers (2.5 miles) deep.

Robots will cut holes in the ship's prow, fit valves and attach the shuttles to catch the rest of the fuel -- an estimated 13,000 tonnes -- as it flows out.

The aluminum shuttles, which can each hold a 300 cubic meter (10,500 cubic feet) load, will lift the oil to a pipe 40 meters below the surface, which will carry it to a boat. The recovery will be managed by Spanish oil firm Repsol.

Labor minister and government spokesman Eduardo Zaplana said the operation would be complemented by a bio-rehabilitation programme, but gave no further details.

The total cost of the salvage operation, which the government believes could be finished by next summer, is expected to reach nearly 100 million euros ($122.5 million).

Government figures from November showed only eight of more than 1,000 beaches were still affected. But environmental group WWF said in the same month that the oil spill could damage fishing, tourism and natural habitats for the next decade, at a cost of five billion euros.

The European Union has now banned Prestige-type single-hulled tankers from its ports, and the world's top maritime body, the United Nation's International Maritime Organization, has brought forward a deadline to phase them out.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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