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Negligence may have been responsible for a Greek tanker going aground and catching fire off the north Spanish coast, spilling thousands of gallons of burning oil into the sea, an official said Saturday.

"There is substantial evidence of professional negligence," La Coruna's civil governor Pilar Lledo said as oil from the tanker Aegean Sea spread along 60 miles of coastline.The tanker ran aground, broke up and caught fire near the port of La Coruna on the country's northwestern coast Thursday. The investigation of the disaster was concentrating on why no pilot was aboard as the ship maneuvered to enter a oil depot at night in heavy seas, news reports said.

Environmentalists Saturday feared it could be one of the biggest spills in history.

More than two days after the tanker Aegean Sea broke apart in the rich fishing grounds near this northwestern port, environmentalists said thousands of sea birds have been found doused in oil.

The tanker, carrying nearly 24 million gallons of light crude, split in half after running aground Thursday, spewing oil in a slick that measured at least 20 square miles on Saturday.

"We don't know how much has escaped . . . but in principle this may be twice as bad as the Exxon Valdez," said Jeremy Leggett, an oil expert for the environmental group Greenpeace.

The 1989 spill left almost 11 million gallons of oil on the shores of Alaska's Prince William Sound.

The worst oil spill in Europe occurred in March 1978 off the northwest coast of France when the tanker Amoco Cadiz lost 68 million gallons of crude.

Environmentalists said that in the Mera beach area alone they had found 2,000 oil-soaked sea birds, which have been plucking oily fish from the dark waters off this port 280 miles from Madrid.

Rafael Lobeto, a Spanish Merchant Marine official, said calmer weather Saturday had helped slow the spread of the slick. He said it could take two more days, however, to calculate the extent of the spill.

A magistrate agreed Saturday to release the tanker's Greek captain, Constantine Stavrides, from police custody after the ship owners paid bail of $8,850.

Stavrides told the magistrate Friday that the weather was "hellish" and that he lost control of the ship.