A LANDMARK court battle to decide the fate of nine rusting US navy ships due to be broken up in the North-East began yesterday.

The ships have been unable to leave the James River, in Virginia, for Able UK's yard in Hartlepool pending the legal fight.

Able is confident it will be given permission for the ships to make the crossing.

But Friends of the Earth said that it would continue its challenge against Able's right to break up the ships, whatever the US judgement.

If Able wins approval, the company hopes to attract other lucrative contracts from the US government.

More than 100 unwanted naval vessels are moored in the James River, where they are known as ghost ships.

A US judge will hear evidence about the vessels after they were blocked from sailing to the Hartlepool shipyard following legal challenges by environmental protestors.

Able has suffered a series of setbacks after it won an £11m contract to scrap 13 ships belonging to the US Maritime Administration.

It previously said that an environmental impact assessment and a planning application required by Hartlepool Borough Council before work could start would be submitted by the end of this month.

The company also requires a waste management licence from the Environment Agency, but cannot receive this until it gets approval from Hartlepool Borough Council.

Critics of the deal said the vessels were laden with dangerous chemicals and waste materials, and that they should be disposed of in the US.

Officials from Able hit back that the ships were safe and that scrapping them in Hartlepool would create hundreds of jobs.

The court hearing in the US is expected to take several weeks.

Read more about the Ghost Ships campaign here.