11 dead or missing as coastguard ends North Sea search

Dutch rescue workers on Thursday called off their search for survivors from a North Sea cargo ship collision with 11 sailors dead or missing in the icy waters and no chance of finding more survivors.

"We have now stopped and we will not begin again tomorrow," Dutch coastguard spokesman Peter Westenberg told AFP as darkness fell at around 4:30 pm (1530 GMT). "There is zero chance of finding survivors," he said.

Rescuers, including the Dutch and Belgian coast guards, on Wednesday plucked 13 surviving members of 24-member crew from the water after the Baltic Ace car carrier collided with the Corvus J container ship and sank about 100 kilometres (60 miles) southwest of Rotterdam.

But with the search suspended late Wednesday after four bodies were found, the chances of finding survivors dropped dramatically.

A Belgian sea rescue helicopter found another body at around 11:45 am (1045 GMT) on Thursday, the coastguard said, bringing the confirmed death toll to five.

Dutch police said they had identified the dead found so far as two Polish men aged 47 and 60, a Ukrainian man, 47, and two Filipino men, aged 30 and 50.

The 148-metre (485-foot) Bahamas-registered Baltic Ace sank shortly afterwards, the coastguard said. The Corvus J was also damaged, but assisted in the search for missing crew.

Pictures of the Corvus J released by the Dutch coastguard showed that it had a severely damaged prow, indicating that it had hit the Baltic Ace with considerable force.

Rescue efforts overnight were hampered by snow flurries and plummeting temperatures as well as strong winds and waves of up to three metres (10 feet).

"The water temperature is around seven degrees Celsius (45 degrees Fahrenheit), not very warm," another coastguard spokesman, Marcel Oldenburger, told AFP.

"Survival time depends on your clothes, if you're wearing a survival suit and a life jacket you can last a while but if you fall overboard wearing jeans then that's really not much."

The shipping lane where the accident happened is one of the busiest in the North Sea and an important passing point for ships sailing into Rotterdam port, Europe's largest and the fifth-largest in the world.

The coastguard refused to speculate on what caused the accident and police said there would be no Dutch criminal probe into the accident as it happened outside the Netherlands' territorial waters.

Janusz Wolosz, second secretary at the Polish embassy in The Hague, told AFP that 11 of the 24 crew were Polish, of whom six were saved, including the captain.

Oldenburger said the rest of the crew was made up of Filipinos, Bulgarians and Ukrainians.

The foreign ministry in Sofia said one Bulgarian national had been aboard the Baltic Ace but was among the 13 rescued sailors and was in good health.

The Baltic Ace was heading from Zeebrugge in Belgium to Kotka in Finland and the Cypriot-registered Corvus J from Grangemouth in Scotland to Antwerp in Belgium.

A spokesman for United European Car Carriers in Oslo said the Baltic Ace was carrying 1,417 cars when it went down.

Rotterdam port spokesman Sjaak Poppe told AFP the collision did not affect shipping in and out of the port.

Despite being home to one of the world's busiest shipping routes, the North Sea off the Dutch coast is relatively safe and fatal accidents are rare.

There are around 24 serious incidents in the area every year, national news agency ANP reported, around half of them collisions.

A Dutch fishing boat in April 2005 netted a World War II bomb that killed three fishermen when it exploded on board their vessel.

In November 1994 a bulk carrier hit the trawler Larissa in the busy Dutch shipping route, killing six crew and the captain.

burs-cjo/jhe/jmm

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