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Ship crash officers plead guilty

The captain and navigating officer of a cargo ship that ran aground on a New Zealand reef have pleaded guilty to a series of charges.

The men were responsible for the sailing path of the vessel Rena on October 5 last year when it ran aground on the well-charted Astrolabe reef near the port of Tauranga.

In the days after the crash, the ship spilled about 400 tons of fuel oil, fouling pristine beaches and killing thousands of seabirds in what has been labelled New Zealand's worst maritime environmental disaster.

In a Tauranga court, both men admitted operating a ship in a dangerous manner and trying to pervert the course of justice by changing the ship's documents after the crash, an offence that carries a maximum prison sentence of seven years.

The 774ft Liberia-flagged vessel split in two in January after foundering on the reef for three months. Both halves remain perched on the reef, with the stern section largely submerged.

Salvage crews, who removed more than 1,000 tons of oil from the ship after the crash, are continuing the painstaking task of removing shipping containers.

New Zealand's government has estimated the cost of the clean-up at 130 million New Zealand dollars (£68 million). Most of the costs have been met by insurers, although taxpayers have also paid for some costs.

The ship is owned by Greek-based Costamare and was chartered by the Swiss-based Mediterranean Shipping Company.

The captain pleaded guilty to all six charges filed against him, while the navigating officer pleaded guilty to four of the five charges against him and did not enter a plea on the fifth, pending the outcome of a legal hearing on May 22.

The court has suppressed the names of the men, who are due to be sentenced on May 25. The captain's lawyer declined to comment and the navigating officer's lawyer did not immediately return calls.

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