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Passengers trapped on a ferry which is on fire during bad weather in the Adriatic Sea have been using mobile phones to plead for help.

Some called Greek TV stations in desperation as they huddled on the top decks of the Norman Atlantic while the ship was battered by gales.

Several hundred are thought to be exposed to a raging storm and billowing smoke, while a blaze burns and explosions are heard below.

Attempts to pluck them off in pairs by helicopter have proved difficult with two falling from an escape chute into the water where they were left struggling against the six metre waves.

A total of 478 passengers and crew were on board the ship when it caught fire just after 6am local time about 35 miles north of Corfu, close to the Albanian city of Vlora, while it was travelling from Patras, Greece, to Ancona in Italy.

 

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About 150 passengers were able to get off, but about 100 of those are thought to still be stranded at sea in life boats.

Greek and Albanian authorities, using planes and at least four helicopters, are taking part in the rescue operation which is being led by the Italians.

Miltiadis Varvitsiotis, Greece’s Merchant Marine Minister, said several ships are in the area, the closest of which is the cruise ship Europa, which is leading the rescue operation.

He said: “We are doing everything we can to save those on board and no one, no one will be left helpless in this tough situation.”

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said on Twitter he is talking to his Greek counterpart Antonis Samaras about the rescue effort.

The ship is owned by the Italian company VISEMAR de Navigazione and chartered to Greek ferry firm ANEK Lines SA. It runs on a route which in the summer is popular with tourists heading to the southern Greek mainland.

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