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    Norway rescuers airlift passengers off cruise ship in storm

    OSLO (AFP) – Rescuers were working yesterday to airlift more than 1,300 passengers and crew off a cruise ship after it got into difficulty in rough seas off the Norwegian coast.

    The Viking Sky lost power and started drifting mid-afternoon on Saturday in perilous waters two kilometres off More og Romsdal, prompting the captain to send out a distress call.

    At that stage, the authorities decided to launch a helicopter airlift in very difficult conditions rather than run the risk of leaving people on board.

    “We would rather have the passengers on land rather than on board the ship,” Police Chief Tor Andre Franck said.

    By early yesterday, the crew had managed to restart three of its four engines.

    The vessel was making slow headway at two to three knots off the dangerous, rocky coast and a tug would help it towards the port of Molde, about 500 kilometres northwest of Oslo, officials said.

    Passengers are helped from a rescue helicopter in Fraena, Norway after being rescued from the Viking Sky cruise ship. – AP

    Five helicopters were scrambled along with coastguard and other rescue vessels.

    Police said 338 of the 1,373 people on board had so far been taken off by helicopter, with each chopper able to take 15-20 people per trip.

    The airlift was continuing early yesterday, emergency services spokesman Per Fjeld said.

    “I have never seen anything so frightening,” said one of the passengers who was rescued, Janet Jacob.

    “The helicopter trip was terrifying. The winds were like a tornado,” she added.

    Pictures in media reports showed passengers on board as the boat rocked up and down.

    “We were sitting down for breakfast when things started to shake… It was just chaos,” said another passenger, American John Curry, as quoted in Norwegian by media.

    The Viking Sky sent out a distress signal due to “engine problems in bad weather”, southern Norway’s rescue centre said earlier on Twitter.

    The ship was travelling south en route from Tromso to Stavanger when it got into trouble in an area that has claimed many vessels.

    “It is dangerous to encounter engine problems in these waters, which hide numerous reefs,” said head of the police operations Tor Andre Franck.

    A reception centre has been set up in a gym on shore to accommodate the evacuees, many of whom are from the United States (US) and Britain.

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