French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, touring beaches devastated by oil seeping from a sunken tanker off the Atlantic coast, pledged to press for stricter global safety rules.
Jospin, who cut short a trip to Egypt to return to France as it was hit by violent storms that killed some 60 people and drove two separate oil slicks to its coastline, vowed to use the French presidency of the European Union next year to push for new laws.
"We are going to draw the lessons for international regulations," he said. "We are going to make precise proposals. Polluters must not be absolved of their responsibilities."
French media reported that the oil slicks, which seeped from the tanker Erika after it sank on Dec. 12, were now threatening 250 miles of France's rugged Atlantic coast, which is heavily dependent on fishing and tourism.
A sizeable slick was sighted drifting towards the Loire estuary, threatening the numerous migratory birds on its banks, officials said.
Barrages - which so far been unable to hold back oil slicks
in stormy seas - were to be installed to protect a gas terminal in the estuary, and further upstream, a power station which pumps water for its cooling systems.
Volunteers returned to beaches they had previously cleared only to find overnight storms had flung more thick oil ashore.
In the resort town of La Baule, volunteers poking at blobs of oil washed up among the sea-shells, welcomed Jospin's pledge, but said it had come too late.
"It's tragic, in three hours we've found 180 oily birds on the beach," said Alain Chauviere.
In the meantime, a second six-mile long slick seeping from the Maltese tanker threatened to wash ashore. Maritime officials had yet to establish whether the slick came from oil stuck in the tanker when it sank, or from propulsion fuel.
Officials estimate that about 8,000 tons of fuel oil escaped the wreck when it sank 70 km (45 miles) south of Finistere, leaving around 17,000 tons trapped in her holds.
Jospin gave no details of how France hoped to tighten rules when it assumed the EU's six-month presidency next July.
Old Ships, Flags Of Convenience, Under Attack
Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot has said however that current practice, where safety is the responsibility of the shipowner and not the charterer, is too lax.
The norms, fixed by the International Maritime Organization, are hard to enforce on ships using flags of convenience.
TotalFina, which chartered the Erika, has brought in $154 million worth of anti-pollution equipment, but has blamed the break-up of the 25-year-old vessel on the Italian shipowner.
The Green party has demanded TotalFina pay damages, and urged it to stop using ships more than 20 years old, registered under a convenience flag and not equipped with a double hull.
"TotalFina should pay for all the damage and compensate all the hotels and restaurants," said cleanup volunteer Claudie Verger.
TotalFina, just completing a takeover of rival Elf, has been slammed by the French press and environmentalists. Greenpeace activists delivered barrels of oil collected from French beaches and a few of the 6,000 sea birds killed by the slick to TotalFina's Paris headquarters in what they said was a gift to TotalFina Chairman Thierry Desmarest.
"The remains of these oil-stricken birds that we are offering to Monsieur Desmarest are only a tiny fraction of the many birds killed by this black sea," said Frederic Claveau, head of Greenpeace France's "Ocean" mission. - (Reuters)