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French vessel tows Costa cruise ship to safety

Italian cruise ship Costa Allegra, adrift in the Indian Ocean after a fire in the engine room left it powerless overnight, was being towed Tuesday by a French vessel to the Seychelles islands. The liner is sister ship to the wrecked Costa Concordia.


AFP - Over 1,000 passengers on a stricken Italian cruise ship from the same fleet as the tragedy-struck Costa Concordia were being towed Tuesday to a tiny Seychelles island but will not reach land for another 24 hours.

A fire broke out in the engine room of the Costa Allegra on Monday, stalling the vessel in the choppy waters of the Indian Ocean where Somali pirates have in the past attacked and captured foreign ships.

A French fishing boat started towing the Costa Allegra to the tiny island of Desroches, while two tug boats and two coast guard vessels were expected to reach the vessel later Tuesday, the Seychelles coast guard said.

"The Seychelles Coast Guard can confirm that a French purse seiner vessel (a trawler) reached the location of the Costa Allegra last night and is towing the vessel towards Desroches island," a statement said.

Seychelles presidential spokeswoman Srdjana Janosevic said its arrival at the remote island was not expected "until tomorrow."

Emergency crews onboard extinguished the fire after a few hours and nobody was injured, but the stranded liner was forced to make a mayday call.

Passengers were all moved onto the ship's outer decks to ensure an easier evacuation if needed, and Indian naval aircraft flying overhead took photographs showing people crowded around the cruise ship's swimming pool.

A helicopter from the Seychelles delivered food and satellite phones to the ship, its owner Costa Crociere said, while officials in the Indian Ocean island of Reunion said another French fishing boat was also heading to help.

Naval airplanes from India and the Seychelles are taking it in turns to monitor the boat's progress, Janosevic said, adding the situation onboard was "quiet" and that beyond the technical issues "there is no problem for now."

Costa Crociere said all 636 passengers and 413 crew members were in good health, and confirmed the boat was being towed to Desroches.

"Guests onboard are continuously informed and assisted by the captain and the staff onboard, a cold breakfast was served this morning," the company said in a statement.

The Costa Allegra is from the same fleet as the much larger Costa Concordia, which crashed off an Italian island in January, in a tragedy that claimed 32 lives.

Nine people are under investigation for the disaster, including three Costa Crociere executives, the Concordia's captain and five other crew members.

The Costa Allegra's passengers and crew group nationals from 25 countries, including 135 Italians -- among them nine Marines to guard against pirate attacks, 127 French, 97 Austrians and 90 Swiss, as well as British, German, Mauritian, Russian, Slovenian and Spanish citizens.

The passengers are expected to disembark at Desroches before travelling the 230 kilometres (140 miles) southwest to Mahe, the main island in the Seychelles.

Desroches, a tiny outcrop of land known for its white sandy beaches and dense lush forests of coconut palms and surrounded by coral reefs, is only some 15 kilometres (nine miles) in circumference and hosts an exclusive luxury resort.

Resort manager Mark Leslie said they were in close contact with the authorities, and that they expected the passengers to arrive sometime "after lunch on Wednesday."

"We will be able to accommodate around 200 guests, if they want to stay," Leslie told AFP. "The other ones will be airlifted to Mahe."

However several plane trips will be needed as the short airstrip can handle only small aircraft with a maximum capacity of 25 people, Leslie added.

"We are in contact with the agent of the ship and we are making arrangements to transport the passengers and crew by air to the island of Mahe," said Alain St Ange, the Seychelles Tourism Board's director.

"Our only concern is that we do not have enough bedrooms for everyone... as we are holding an international carnival which begins on Friday."

The ship was on its way from Madagascar to the Seychelles, an idyllic archipelago of more than 115 islands.

It was at the start of a cruise which would have also taken it to Oman, the Red Sea and the Egyptian Mediterranean port of Alexandria.

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