Latvia Evacuates Cruise Ship

APLatvian tug boats attempting to pull the stranded cruise ship Mona Lisa.
RIGA — Latvia's coast guard Monday began evacuating a stranded cruise ship with nearly 1,000 people on board after tug boats failed to pull the luxury liner off an underwater sand bank in the Baltic Sea.

The 651 passengers, most of them elderly Germans, were being transferred from the Mona Lisa onto two naval ships, which would take them to Ventspils, a port city in northwestern Latvia, the coast guard said. The passengers were descending ladders from the liner to the naval ship, it said.

Rescuers also planned to remove most of the 327 crew members and six crew interns from the ship, which ran aground early Sunday about 17 kilometers off Latvia's coast.

"The operation is proceeding smoothly, and the passengers are fine," coast guard officer Ruslans Kulesovs said, adding that the weather conditions were "nearly perfect."

Officials could not say how long the evacuation would take, nor could they specify how many crew would remain on board the Bahamas-registered vessel.

Once in Ventspils, the passengers and crew will be shuttled by train to Riga, some 160 kilometers to the east, said Krists Leiskalns, spokesman for Latvian Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis.

The prime minister was heading to Ventspils to meet with the military and emergency services to discuss transport issues, Leiskalns said.

The Mona Lisa's captain agreed to evacuate the ship after unsuccessful efforts to free it from the sand bank.

Kulesovs said four tugboats had worked together to free the 30,000-ton liner, which became stuck early Sunday morning as it was passing through the Irbe Strait between Latvia and the Estonian island of Saaremaa.

Initially, rescuers pumped ballast water from the ship to lighten the load, and then on Monday they tried pumping out fuel. But they were unable to free the liner.

The 201-meter-long Mona Lisa was on its way from Kiel, Germany, to Riga with 984 people on board when it ran aground, officials said.

Coast guard officials said the ship, which went into service in 1966, was not damaged and the passengers were safe and not at risk. The cause of the accident has not been determined.