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Ebay shuts down Columbia auctions

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Just hours after the space shuttle Columbia broke apart over Texas, Web site Ebay closed down a number of on-line auctions where debris was on sale.

Despite warnings from NASA and other US federal authorities not to touch shuttle debris due to the possible presence of toxic substances, Web users claiming to have collected chunks of metal and other materials had established auctions on Ebay by Saturday afternoon. For its part, Ebay took down the auctions and said it would continue to do so if any others were discovered on its servers.

"Ebay and its community of users are deeply saddened by the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and its brave crew. Our sympathies go out to the families of the crew and all those affected by this terrible tragedy," the company said in a statement.

"The handling of any debris from the Space Shuttle Columbia is potentially dangerous and against federal law. Any listing of shuttle debris on Ebay, now or in the future, will be immediately removed from the site. In addition, Ebay will cooperate fully with law enforcement agencies requesting information about users attempting to list illegal items," the company added.

Under US federal law, removing parts of aircraft involved in an accident could earn convicted persons ten years in prison and a USD250,000 fine.

Ebay spokespeople estimated that auctions had been set up within an hour of the first reports of the Columbia disaster. Returning from a 16-day mission in space, Columbia broke apart at about 2pm Irish time on Saturday, just 16 minutes from its expected landing in Florida. All seven astronauts on board were killed, and debris was spread over a 100-mile-long and 10-mile-wide corridor across Texas.

Ebay said that whenever high-profile events occur, a small number of on-line members look to make fast cash by selling artefacts and so-called memorabilia. Similar postings were found on the Ebay site shortly after the 11 September attacks. "Our experience has told us that listings like this are often pranks," said Ebay spokesman Kevin Pursglove in a Reuters interview. "Sometimes people are trying to draw attention to themselves or participate in a news story."

Michael Shelby, US Attorney for southern Texas, told reporters at Johnson Space Centre in Houston that anyone who touched the shuttle debris could face a stiff penalty. "It's a federal offence that could bring up to ten years in prison. And I will prosecute," he said.

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