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Ship fire kills nine off Venezuela: report


A member of Venezuela's Maritime Rescue and Aid service looks out of a MI 17 helicopter during the rescue mission of the crew of the Greek bulk carrier "Aegean Wind" at 33 nautical miles (61 km) northeast of the Venezuelan Caribbean island of La Blanquilla December 25, 2009. REUTERS/Venezuela Maritime Rescue and Aid service/Handout
A member of Venezuela's Maritime Rescue and Aid service looks out of a MI 17 helicopter during the rescue mission of the crew of the Greek bulk carrier "Aegean Wind" at 33 nautical miles (61 km) northeast of the Venezuelan Caribbean island of La Blanquilla December 25, 2009. REUTERS/Venezuela Maritime Rescue and Aid service/Handout

By Walker Simon

CARACAS (Reuters) - Nine sailors were killed and five were burned in a Christmas Day blaze aboard a Greek freighter in waters off a Venezuelan Caribbean island, the official Venezuelan news agency ABN reported on Friday.

It quoted Admiral Carlos Maximo Aniasi, commander of Venezuela's navy, as saying the blaze broke out in an engine room of the "Aegean Wind" before dawn and spread upward on the vessel which was carrying iron ore from Brazil to Houston and had a 24-strong crew.

"Nine bodies were found in different compartments of the Greek ship," the admiral said.

The bodies belonged to nine sailors reported missing earlier in the day on the ship 33 nautical miles northeast of the island of La Blanquilla, Aniasi said. The navy's communications office declined comment on the ABN report.

Two Philippine nationals suffered third-degree burns on their face and hands and three Greek crew mates had less sever burns, said Rafael Lugo, the national commander of Venezuela's Maritime Rescue and Aid service.

Ten surviving crew members, including a woman, were on the deck, Lugo said.

He told Reuters a Venezuelan navy helicopter lowered a cable to the deck, picked up the injured and took them to a hospital in Margarita, a Caribbean island that is Venezuela's leading seaside resort and is packed with tourists during Christmas vacation.

One of the injured sailors was later flown to Caracas for treatment at a military hospital, Aniasi said.

The cause of the blaze was unknown and the "Aegean Sea" would be towed to Margarita, the admiral added.

Lugo told Reuters the lifeboats of the "Aegean Wind" were intact on the ship, with no signs that there had been efforts to loosen them to abandon ship.

The Venezuelan navy sent a patrol boat with paramedics and rescue personnel to further search the ship below deck, which was filled with thick smoke, he said.

A coast guard official said the blaze was under control. The Venezuelan navy is sending a helicopter with navy firemen on board to extinguish the blaze, the admiral told Globovision TV.

Earlier on Friday, a Greek coast guard official said in Athens: "The fire is under control, there is no risk of sinking. Of the missing crew, three are Greek and the rest Philippine nationals."

Operated by Athens-based Atlantic Bulk Carriers, the ship was built in 1983 and has a crew of 24. (Additional reporting by George Georgiopoulos in Athens; editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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