A stricken cargo ship carrying timber from west Africa was successfully towed into the northern Spanish port of Bilbao Wednesday after a days-long salvage operation prevented it from crashing into the neighbouring French coast.
A tugboat dragged the listing Panama-registered "Modern Express" into the port accompanied by other vessels, an AFP photographer said, after an unexplained breakdown in high seas last month forced the 22 crew to abandon ship in a dramatic helicopter rescue.
The 164-metre-long (538-foot) ship will now have to be moored and put upright again in the coming days in the biggest ever such operation organised by the port of Bilbao, one of the largest on Spain's Atlantic coast.
The Modern Express was carrying diggers and 3,600 tonnes of timber from Gabon in west Africa to the port of Le Havre in Normandy, France when it ran into difficulties in January.
It was also carrying 300 tonnes of fuel oil, although authorities said there was a limited risk of pollution in the event of a crash.
The ship's crew sent a distress signal on January 26 after the vessel listed strongly to one side, possibly due to its cargo coming loose in the hull.
Two Spanish helicopters were dispatched to airlift the crew to safety.
They had been left clinging to the deck of the ship after it tilted at 40 degrees while buffeted by large waves and high winds.
- 'Moving mountain' -
The abandoned ship then drifted in rough seas for several days before authorities launched a bid to attach a tow line and stop it from hitting the French coast.
Dutch salvage experts were lowered by helicopter onto the vessel to try and attach the line.
They failed three times, with the cable snapping on Saturday due to swells of up to five metres (16 feet).
"The difficulty is a combination of several things: the wind, the swell and the angle of the boat which is like climbing a mountain, but which is moving," a spokesperson for SMIT Salvage, the Dutch company working to attach the towline, told AFP over the weekend.
On Monday, as the ship was approaching dangerously close to the coast not far from the western French resort of La Rochelle, they launched a final attempt and succeeded in connecting a tugboat to the vessel.
The tugboat pivoted the ship, pointed it towards the open sea and started slowly dragging it away from France to Bilbao at the request of the vessel's owner, South Korean firm Cido Shipping.
By late Tuesday it was nearing Bilbao, according to Spanish authorities, who decided to delay the operation to bring it into port until daylight Wednesday.
If the towing operation had failed, the Modern Express would likely have crashed into France's coast, where it would have been dismantled or cut up.