South Korea has declared a section of its west coast a special disaster zone, as thousands of residents, soldiers and police spent a fifth day trying to mop up the worst oil spill in the country’s history.

President Roh Moo-hyun said yesterday the government would offer “maximum support” to the residents of the area “focused on compensation for damage and property losses”.

About 10,500 tonnes of crude oil leaked into the sea on Friday after a Samsung Heavy Industries barge came loose from its tugboat and rammed into the Hong Kong-registered tanker Hebei Spirit.

“It is beyond imagination how much damage has been caused to fishing grounds, the natural environment and the tourism industry in this area,” said Lee One-ku, governor of the province.

Beaches have been littered with dead fish and waterfowl covered in oil, and the area’s oyster beds have been wiped out.