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Greenpeace activists in kayaks and boats have boarded a 23,498-tonne ship in the Thames Estuary. The ship is reportedly carrying thousands of Volkswagen diesel cars bound for the UK.

A group of up to 40 activists scaled the fences at Sheerness Port, Kent, at around 8.30am local time.

Greenpeace says it will not leave the ship until the cars, meant for UK suppliers, are returned to Germany.

The protesters are hanging off the harborside brandishing a huge poster of a child wearing a gas mask with the words “Ditch Diesel.”

In a statement, Greenpeace said: “The volunteers, including many mothers, fathers and people from all walks of life, are attempting to immobilise all of the VW diesel cars by removing the keys.

“They are also lifting the bonnets and labelling the engines with messages from 8,000 people, including many car owners, calling on VW to ditch diesel.”

Janet Barker, 38, a support worker, from Powys, Wales, and one of the volunteers taking action, said: “Diesel cars are toxic – so we’re here to block VW imports on behalf of all of the children who are the most acutely affected by the health impacts of diesel fumes.

“VW’s polluting vehicles are adding to a public health emergency harming thousands of people,” Barker said, according to the Sun.

Volunteers are trying to stop the cars from being distributed to UK dealers by removing their keys.

Bo Ruan, a Greenpeace employee, warned of the consequences of diesel emissions.

“My daughter Sephie has developed severe respiratory problems which can render her housebound for a week at a time. The wealth of evidence connecting air pollution to respiratory problems in children is now overwhelming,” he said, according to the Metro.

“Our country’s children, like Sephie, are developing real health issues across our cities made worse by air pollution.

“Unless we ditch diesel, we could end up with a whole generation of children with damaged lungs.”

Kent Police said officers are at the scene.