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'Toxic ship' is passenger vessel

Boat sank during World War I, says minister

30 October, 13:09

(ANSA) - Rome, October 29 - A wreck at the centre of a media furore for weeks over fears it contained toxic waste is actually a passenger vessel from World War I, Environment Minister Stefania Prestigiacomo said Thursday. Discussing the results of an investigation into the site during a press conference, the minister said the wreck off the Calabrian coast was not the remains of a ship sunk deliberately in order to conceal radioactive waste, as alleged by a mafia turncoat. Ex-mafioso Francesco Fonti claimed the wreck, discovered in early September, was the remains of a Russian vessel, the Cunsky, which had been sunk by a criminal organization in 1992.

''This is not a ship with poison on board but was actually a passenger ship, the Catania, which sunk in 1917 during World War I,'' said the minister.

Italy's top mafia prosecutor Piero Grasso, who also appeared at the press conference, added that extensive testing of the area had revealed no signs of any radioactive contamination. He said tests had been carried out down to 300 metres' depth and in a radius of seven kilometres around the wreck.

He acknowledged this might not be enough to allay concerns raised in recent weeks, saying Calabrian tourism had been ''one undoubted victim'' of the scare, but said tests would continue. ''The case of this wreck is closed but investigations into pollution more generally in this area will continue,'' he said, promising to push for a more comprehensive programme of interventions. Investigators discovered the boat 12 miles off the Cosenza coastline seven weeks ago, reportedly deducing the location from an account by Fonti, who claimed to have helped sink the vessel 17 years ago.

In his statement, the turncoat also claimed he had been personally involved in the sinking of two other ships and said he knew of at least 30 more vessels sunk by the mafia in Italian waters in order to dispose of toxic waste.

Fonti, who is under house arrest, alleged the waste came from Italian and European pharmaceutical companies and that the 'Ndrangheta mafia was paid up to 15 million euros to sink the ships.

Prosecutors met with the turncoat on Wednesday to discuss his claims in depth but have not yet revealed details of their talks.

Commenting on Prestigiacomo's announcement, the deputy chief of leading environmental organization Legambiente, Sebastiano Venneri, said Fonti had not been the only one to make claims of this kind. He pointed out another convict turned state's evidence had made almost identical allegations in 2004 but ''no action was taken to uncover the truth''. Venneri called on prosecutors to continue ''investigating so-called 'toxic ships' and related issues of illegal trafficking in dangerous and radioactive waste''.

The Catania passenger ship, which belonged to a Genoese shipping company, was built in Palermo in 1906. It was sunk by a German submarine off the coast of Cosenza on March 16, 1917, on a journey from Bombay back to Naples.

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