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Oil spill ship captain charged

The captain of a cargo ship that has spilled hundreds of tons of oil since striking a reef off the New Zealand coast has appeared in court to face criminal charges.

The 44-year-old Filipino, whose name has not been revealed publicly, was charged with operating a vessel in a manner causing unnecessary danger or risk and was released on bail when he appeared in Tauranga District Court, near where his ship appeared to be breaking up in mountainous seas.

The Liberian-flagged Rena - which ran aground on October 5 on the Astrolabe Reef, about 14 miles from Tauranga Harbour on New Zealand's North Island - was showing obvious structural strain from the worsening conditions, with a vertical crack apparent on the starboard side of its hull from the deck to the waterline.

About 70 containers have fallen overboard as the 775-foot vessel has listed further.

Maritime New Zealand, which is managing the emergency response, described the crack as a "substantial structural failure" and warned that the stern may break away. Three tug boats were mobilised to hold the stern on the reef, while further efforts were made to remove the oil, or to tow the stern to shallow water, the agency said in a statement.

The piles of containers that remain on deck have continued to move, making it dangerous for salvage crews to work on board. Six vessels have been mobilised to intercept the drifting containers and other debris in the water.

Maritime New Zealand commander Nick Quinn said his priority remained cleaning up the oil.

"Until now, we have had a light oiling of beaches," he said. "This will significantly increase as more oil washes ashore over the coming days."

The captain's lawyer, Paul Mabey, requested that Judge Robert Wolff suppress his client's name because, he said, "there is a real potential that some persons may want to take matters into their own hands", the New Zealand Herald reported on its website. It also reported that the grounding happened on the captain's birthday.

If convicted, the captain could face a fine of up to 10,000 New Zealand dollars (£5,000) and 12 months in prison. His next court appearance is on October 19, when authorities say more charges are likely.

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