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Oil spill forces Greek authorities to close Athens beaches

People stand on a beach where an oil spillage has been washed-up at Glyfada suburb, near Athens, on Thursday,Sept. 14, 2017. Greek authorities insist they are doing everything they can to clean up pollution caused by an oil spill following the sinking of a small oil tanker that has left large sections of the Greek capital's coastal areas coated in viscous, foul-smelling oil. (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)

People stand on a beach where an oil spillage has been washed-up at Glyfada suburb, near Athens, on Thursday,Sept. 14, 2017. Greek authorities insist they are doing everything they can to clean up pollution caused by an oil spill following the sinking of a small oil tanker that has left large sections of the Greek capital's coastal areas coated in viscous, foul-smelling oil. (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)

ATHENS, Greece — Greek authorities have banned swimming along a long line of popular Athens beaches on Friday following extensive sea pollution from the sinking of a small oil tanker five days ago, which prompted a large containment and cleanup operation.

The swimming ban covers much of a 20-kilometre (13-mile) stretch from Greece's main port of Piraeus to Glyfada, further south, as well as part of the island of Salamina. A Health Ministry statement said the prohibition would last until the beaches have been cleaned.

Much of the area has been contaminated by slicks of heavy fuel oil from the Agia Zoni II tanker, which sank Sunday while anchored in calm seas off Salamina, close to Piraeus.

An Athens prosecutor filed criminal charges Friday against the ship-owning company and the crew for alleged breaches of environmental legislation. If proved in court, the charges carry a minimum 5-year prison sentence.

An investigating judge will also examine whether state agencies responsible for addressing the pollution did their job properly, following complaints that the slick should have been contained before it travelled far from the wreck.

In a report to judicial authorities Friday, the mayors of Glyfada and neighbouring Alimos said the spill caused "incalculable damage to the environment" and harmed local hotels, restaurants and fishermen.

"This year, hundreds of thousands of people visited Glyfada's beaches, because for the first time one of our beaches received an award for the exceptional quality of its waters," the report said. "Now, however, this distinction is useless."

The government insists it did all it could to fight the pollution, arguing that the situation is improving from day to day.

The tanker, which Greece's Merchant Marine Ministry says sank in 15 minutes, was carrying 2,200 tons of fuel oil and 370 tons of marine gas oil. It is unclear how much fuel escaped, before divers sealed the wreck, into waters that host dolphins, turtles, and a variety of fish and sea birds.

Floating booms have been set up at various points along the coast of Athens, while about 20 vessels are taking part in the clean-up operation.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras chaired a government meeting on the spill Friday. His office said he called for stricter inspections of merchant vessels, and the use of more clean-up ships to get rid of the pollution.

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