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Explosion Hampers Effort To Rescue Crew On Burning Iranian Oil Tanker

The Sanchi tanker carrying Iranian oil burns in the East China Sea on January 7.

Rescue teams were forced to temporarily suspend their work after an explosion on an Iranian oil tanker with 31 missing crew members that has been burning for five days in the East China Sea.

The blast happened on board the tanker on the afternoon of January 10 as rescue crews were dousing the ship with foam in an attempt to put out the fire, China's Transport Ministry said.

Officials said they still have hopes of finding some of the missing crew alive, though they said the blaze set off by a collision with a freight ship on January 6 could rage for as long as a month.

Iran's Navy joined the rescue efforts off the coast of China near Shanghai on January 10, the Iranian Students' News Agency (ISNA) cited a government official as saying.

The Iranian operator of the Sanchi tanker repeated on January 10 that it believes survivors could still be found on board the burning ship, which contains a highly flammable fuel that is in danger of exploding and sinking the vessel.

"Our priority is the lives of the crew," said Mohsen Bahrami, a spokesman for the National Iranian Tanker Company, the tanker's operator.

"We still hope that at least some of them -- and I hope all -- are inside a protected part of the tanker," he said on Iranian state television.

"There is a good possibility that people are still alive," he said, but added that he had no solid information anyone has survived the massive fire and explosion.

The body of one of the tanker's 32 crewmen, who are mostly Iranian, has been recovered, while the other 31 are missing.

"We do not have the same priorities as the Chinese," Bahrami said. "They think first about the environment and prefer that the whole load burns, because it is a fishing area with a lot of fish."

Dozens of rescue boats have battled strong winds, high waves, and poisonous fumes to put out the fire and search for the missing sailors in an area of 3,000 square kilometers.

The tanker collided with a freighter carrying grain from the United States about 300 kilometers off China's coast near Shanghai.

The Sanchi was carrying 136,000 tons of condensate, an ultralight fuel that is highly flammable, to South Korea.

The Chinese government said late on January 9 that it had not found a "large-scale" oil leak, and the condensate was burning off or evaporating so quickly it would leave little residue if it spills into the ocean. That reduces the chances of an environmentally destructive oil slick forming off China's coast.

Still, condensate is highly volatile when exposed to air and water, and concerns were growing the tanker could explode and sink as long as the fire burns uncontained.

With reporting by AP, AFP, dpa, and Reuters