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By Amelie Baron
PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - The Haitian government plans to create a high-level commission to monitor the possible discovery of the 500-year-old remains of Christopher Columbus's flagship off the country's north coast, Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe said on Wednesday.
The announcement, made via Twitter, came as Haitian officials were meeting in the capital Port-au-Prince with U.S. marine explorer Barry Clifford, the leader of a team that claimed two weeks ago to have discovered the wreck of the Santa Maria.
Lamothe said the commission would be composed of experts from the United Nation's cultural arm, UNESCO, the ministries of culture and tourism, specialists from the Haitian National Pantheon Museum (MUPANAH), as well as Clifford.
"I am confident that a full excavation of the wreck will yield the first-ever detailed marine archaeological evidence of Columbus's discovery of America," Clifford told a press conference in New York two weeks ago.
The wreck was discovered in about 10 to 15 feet (3 to 4.5 meters) of water near a reef, and matches the length of the Santa Maria's 115-foot (35-meter) keel, according to the exploration team.
Haitian officials remain skeptical, saying it was unlikely that any trace of the wooden ship remains after so many years.
The Santa Maria was one of a fleet of three vessels that left Spain in 1492 to look for a shorter route to Asia. The ship, after arriving near the Bahamas, drifted onto a reef on Christmas Day and had to be abandoned.
The MUPANAH, located in the center of Port-au-Prince, has for many years exhibited as its main attraction what is believed to be one of the anchors of the Santa Maria, recovered more than 300 years ago in good condition.
Clifford is hoping for official backing of his recovery effort a few miles offshore, including protection of the wreck site from looters, arguing that it could provide a boost to Haiti's struggling tourism industry.
Clifford has said he would like the ship to stay in Haiti as part of a permanent exhibition to help the country's struggling tourism industry.
(Editing by David Adams and Ken Wills)