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NEW YORK (Reuters) - An underwater explorer who claims to have found the wreckage of Christopher Columbus' flagship, the Santa Maria, off the north coast of Haiti hopes to begin excavating the site as early as next week.
Barry Clifford, a Massachusetts marine investigator who recently led a reconnaissance expedition to the site, told a press conference at the Explorers Club in New York on Wednesday that the start of any excavation depends on approval from the Haitian government.
Clifford also said he needs to locate a facility to potentially house any of the remains.
He and a team of marine explorers say evidence "strongly suggests" the artifacts from the shipwreck off Haiti belong to the Santa Maria, which Columbus used on his maiden voyage to the New World in 1492.
Some experts and Haitian officials have reacted with scepticism to the possible discovery, saying they doubt that enough of the vessel remains to make a definite match.
"I think the evidence is overwhelming that the ship is most likely the Santa Maria," Clifford said, citing its location close to the spot where the ship is believed to have gone down, as well as the wooden remains of the keel seen at the site, along with a cannon.
Clifford, 68, said he has held talks with Haiti President Michel Martelly seeking approval to start excavating. He urged Haitian officials to take steps to protect the artifacts, and said some items, including the cannon, appeared to have been looted from the site.
The wreck was discovered in about 10 to 15 feet of water near a reef almost five miles offshore, Clifford said. On his next expedition he said he hoped to recover pieces of wood and other materials used to build the ship.
The Santa Maria was one of three vessels that left Spain to look for a shorter route to Asia.
The ship sank on Christmas Day in 1492 and had to be abandoned. Afterwards, Columbus left behind 39 men at La Navidad, a fortified camp, and sailed back to Spain. He returned a year later to find the fort destroyed and none of his crew alive.
Clifford said he based his conclusions on the wreck's proximity to La Navidad, and data from Columbus' diary.
The precise location of La Navidad is not known, though archaeologists from the University of Florida have excavated a possible site about 10 miles east of the city of Cap Haitien, on Haiti's north coast.
Clifford's team first discovered the wreck in 2003, but was unable to identify the ship.
Among artifacts found during a previous exploration of the site was a 15th-century cannon. The cannon and other key items have since been taken by the suspected looters, Clifford said.
The artifacts were found underneath a large mound of ballast rock Clifford said that can be matched to a quarry near the port of Columbus' departure in southwestern Spain.
But experts on Columbus' voyages say similar rocks were also used in other ships at the time, some of which traversed the Caribbean.
The Spanish government has not been in touch with Clifford, said a spokeswoman for Spain's Ministry of Culture, who asked not to be named.
"The two governments (Spanish and Haitian) are in touch and both agree that there are doubts over whether it is the Santa Maria and that we need more information," the spokeswoman said.
Additional reporting by Rodrigo de Miguel in Madrid; Writing by Kevin Gray and Laila Kearney; Editing by Andre Grenon and Gunna Dickson