Oil has been washing up on beaches in Galicia A stricken tanker which has been leaking oil off the north-west coast of Spain has sunk after breaking apart, taking thousands of tons of fuel with it.
The bow of the Prestige was the first to go under water, followed a few hours later by the rear of the vessel, which had been carrying at least 70,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil.
There are fears of a massive ecological disaster if all the oil escapes from the Bahamas-registered tanker, which was about 250 kilometres (150 miles) from the Spanish coast when it started to break up.
A spokesman for the Dutch salvage company Smit Salvage said at least some of the compartments containing oil would go to the sea bed intact, lessening the impact of the spill, but that it was impossible to say how many.
"And the low temperature of the sea will hopefully slow down the speed at which the oil escapes from those compartments which have split," Daniel Yates told BBC News Online.
warn that if the entire cargo spills, the resulting damage could be
double that caused in the Exxon Valdez disaster off the coast of Alaska
in 1989 -one of the worst ever.
Whole communities depend on fishing in the area, which is famous for its shellfish, octopus and crabs.
As local residents pushed ahead with an emergency clean-up operation, other European countries offered assistance in response to a Spanish appeal.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar -under fire from environmentalists for what they consider to be a timid response to the disaster - has vowed to make whoever is responsible pay for Spain's worst shipping disaster in 10 years.
To the south, Portugal is bracing for the possibility that oil could foul its Atlantic beaches and rich fishing grounds.
It had rejected the possibility of the crippled tanker entering one of its ports.
A diplomatic row has also erupted between Spain and Britain over responsibility for the maritime safety of the tanker.
The European Commission has declared that catastrophe could have been averted if governments had enforced new rules which oblige authorities to inspect at least a quarter of all ships entering their ports.
The legislation targets ships like the Prestige, an older, single-hulled vessel suspected of carrying a so-called flag of convenience.
The break-up of the Bahamas-registered Prestige has also raised further questions over the issue of registering a vessel in a state with which it does not necessarily have any connection.
allows ship-owners to avoid certain taxes on their profits and avoid
international regulations on matters like crew qualifications.
'Coast of death'
Most of the tanker's crew were airlifted off the vessel last week.
The Greek captain of the vessel, Apostolos Mangouras, has been remanded in custody, accused of failing to co-operate with salvage crews and harming the environment.
Spain's north-west coastline is known as the "coast of death" because of the many shipwrecks that have occurred there.
The worst in recent years was in 1992, when the Greek tanker Aegean Sea lost 80,000 tonnes of crude oil when it ran aground near La Coruna.