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Originally published Thursday, April 18, 2013 at 7:00 AM

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Chile rushes to aid ship in Antarctica after fire

A Chilean military tugboat was heading to Antarctica on Thursday to prevent an environmental disaster by retrieving a Chinese fishing ship that caught fire and began to drift dangerously near sharp glaciers.

Associated Press

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SANTIAGO, Chile —

A Chilean military tugboat was heading to Antarctica on Thursday to prevent an environmental disaster by retrieving a Chinese fishing ship that caught fire and began to drift dangerously near sharp glaciers.

The Kai Xin vessel burned off the coast of Antarctica on Wednesday. Its 97 crew members were rescued by the Juvel, a Norwegian ship, about 55 kilometers (34 miles) from Chile's Bernardo O'Higgins research base near the Antarctic peninsula.

The Kai Xin is now unmanned, and a navy tugboat left port in Punta Arenas, near the southern tip of South America, to tow the ship to harbor.

"The ship has been drifting in zigzags and circles at about 5 knots per hour. It's very close to glaciers and we've sent the tugboat in case it hits the coast causing an oil spill," said Capt. Juan Villegas, maritime governor for Chile's portion of Antarctica.

The Kai Xin left port in Uruguay and Chilean officials don't know how much fuel it's carrying. Fog forced Chile's air force to cancel a flight on Thursday to check on its condition.

"The ship seems in good conditions from the photos we've seen," Villegas told The Associated Press. "The fire seems to have taken place at the engines and there's no risk of sinking."

A Panamanian-flagged Chinese ship, Skyfrost, also was nearing the area to help tow the ship, he said.

Officials at Olympic Seafood AS, owner of the Juvel, said they were part of the rescue of the Kai Xin, but downplayed their role.

"Yes, we took the Chinese crew onto our ship. Of course, we help people who are in distress," said Even T. Remoey, the sales and marketing director of Olympic Seafood, based in Fosnavaag, a western Norwegian coastal town.

The 104-meter (341-foot) Chinese vessel was built in 1990, according to the website of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.

The Kai Xin is operated by Shanghai Kaichuang Marine International Co., a company that specializes in deep-sea fishing, fisheries products and processing. The ship uses pelagic trawling for fishing and can sail in loose pack ice, according to the commission.

Officials at Shanghai Kaichuang, a state company ultimately owned by the Shanghai government, confirmed in a phone interview that the crew had been safely transferred to other vessels. They referred further queries to a statement issued on the Shanghai Securities News website, which serves as an official channel for announcements by Chinese-listed companies.

The statement posted Thursday said a fire occurred while the ship was fishing and that Kaichuang will investigate the cause of the accident and the extent of the damage before releasing more details.

The environmental group Greenpeace has said that the Chinese ship is part of an international fleet of about 50 vessels authorized by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources to fish off the Antarctic coast.

Greenpeace said the ship has authorization to fish for krill.

China's krill market is growing due to strong demand for its use in fishmeal as well as medical and dietary products.

Greenpeace opposes Antarctic fishing for krill, saying it can affect the ecosystem because it is a pillar of the entire ocean's food chain.

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Luis Andres Henao reported from Santiago, Chile. Associated Press correspondents Michael Warren in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Karl Ritter in Stockholm and Jan Olsen in Copenhagen contributed to this report.

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Luis Andres Henao on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LuisAndresHenao

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