Sri Lanka is battling to avoid an environmental crisis as emergency teams fight a blaze on a Singaporean container ship carrying chemicals and oil that has been burning off the country's western coast for over a week.
The fire which broke out on May 20 on the MV X-Press Pearl has been spreading inside the vessel anchored at a location 10 nautical miles off the main Colombo port.
"The fire has intensified and spread across the ship by Wednesday evening," Dharshani Lahandapura, chairperson of the Marine Environment Protection Authority, said.
Fumes of smoke rose from the vessel while more containers were falling overboard and debris from the vessel was being washed ashore more than 10 kilometres away from the location.
Desperate attempts were being made by the Sri Lankan navy and air force as well as Indian coastguard to control the fire and prevent an explosion inside the ship, a navy spokesperson said.
But live pictures also showed that the flames were rising by Wednesday evening and vessels fighting the fire were having difficulty even approaching the ship due to the heat.
The Sri Lanka air force and navy observed oil spills around the vessel, which was carrying 300 tonnes of fuel.
Its main cargo was 1486 containers, most of them carrying chemicals including 25 tonnes of nitric acid.
Sri Lanka's President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has ordered security forces and environmental organisations to launch a comprehensive operation to mitigate the damage to the marine environment and the coastline.
"The president has instructed the officials to pay special attention into minimising the spread of oil around the vessel in the event of an oil spill while remaining vigilant about the prevailing adverse weather condition," a statement from the presidential office said.
Sri Lanka's navy has deployed special security patrols along the western and northwestern coast as debris from the vessel is being washed ashore, officials said on Wednesday.
"We have warned the public not to collect items washed ashore from the ship as they could be mixed with chemicals," Lahandapura said.
However, hundreds have gathered in coastal areas to collect items washed ashore despite the warnings.
The vessel, registered under the Singaporean flag, was en route from the Indian port of Hazira to Singapore via Colombo.