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Crew stabilises ship in Antarctic

The 32 crew members aboard a leaking Russian fishing ship near Antarctica have made progress stabilising the vessel, and a plane is scheduled to drop them supplies later.

Rescue ships, hampered by heavy sea ice, are still several days away however.

The Sparta hit underwater ice on Friday, tearing a 1ft hole in the hull and causing it to list at 13 degrees. Maritime New Zealand, which is co-ordinating rescue attempts, said that the crew had pumped water from the vessel overnight and moved cargo around, making the boat safer and more stable.

Crew members who had donned emergency suits and boarded liferafts are now back aboard the Sparta, the agency said.

A New Zealand Defence Force C-130 plane is scheduled to drop fuel and equipment, including another water pump, to the vessel later.

The crew members are making patches to attach to the hole in the hull if they can get the ship upright, said Chris Wilson, who is co-ordinating the rescue mission for Maritime New Zealand. "It's a very remote, unforgiving environment," said Andrew Wright, executive secretary of the Australian-based Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which licensed the Sparta to catch toothfish in the Southern Ocean.

Mr Wright said he did not know what caused the hole, although he added that an iceberg "would be a good candidate".

The Sparta, which is 157ft long, sent a distress call early on Friday. Maritime New Zealand said heavy ice in the Southern Ocean would make it difficult for other ships to reach the vessel.

The Sparta's sister ship Chiyo Maru No 3 is heading toward the stricken vessel but has no capacity to cut through sea ice, the agency said. A New Zealand vessel, the San Aspiring, has some ice-cutting ability and is also en route, but is still three to four days away. A third vessel is much closer, but is hemmed in by heavy ice and unable to move toward the Sparta.

The crew's emergency immersion suits can keep them alive for a time in freezing water, Maritime New Zealand said. The crew is made up of 15 Russians, 16 Indonesians and one Ukrainian, the agency said.

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