18 Dec 2002

Officials in French Polynesia sieze gutted US cruise ship

3:31 pm on 18 December 2002

A luxury cruise liner which was gutted by fire in French Polynesian waters two weeks ago is now at the centre of a legal wrangle between the French defence ministry and the vessel's owners.

The ship, Wind Song suffered an engine-room fire earlier this month off Raiatea, forcing it to be abandoned by all 127 passengers and 75 crew.

It took three days to put out the blaze and the vessel was subsequently towed to Papeete harbour after an operation involving the French navy a military surveillance aircraft and civil forces.

The ship's owners say the damage is so extensive they plan to scuttle her.

However the vessel has been seized by the French defence ministry of what they call "a conservatory measure" pending payment of part of the cost of the rescue operation.

A senior French naval officer says saving lives is not subject to financial matters, it is a duty and is free of charge.

But he says the saving of goods and equipment is subject to payment under an assistance contract.

The size of that payment is based on the ship's value before the damage occured

French officials have placed the value of the boat at some three million US dollars.