French navy's floating dustbin sails into trouble

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The partly dismantled hulk of the aircraft carrier Clemenceau - once the pride of the French navy - has steamed into an environmental safety dispute covering three continents.

The 27,000-ton ship was circling off the coast of Egypt last night awaiting permission to pass through the Suez canal on its "final" trip to a scrapyard in India.

The Egyptian authorities signalled yesterday morning that they would probably lift objections to the passage of the 45-year-old ship, which contains a disputed amount of asbestos.

However, the Indian government is under increasing pressure to refuse permission for the Clemenceau to enter the Alang scrapyard in Gujarat province. The Indian Supreme Court will today begin hearing a challenge by environmental groups to the breaking up of the ship by Indian workers. A committee appointed by the court has recommended the aircraft carrier be sent home to Toulon on the French Mediterranean coast.

The ship, which was decommissioned from the French navy in 1997, has been the subject of disputes over its place of destruction for several years. Plans to have it scrapped in Portugal, Greece and Turkey have all foundered.

The French press suggested at the weekend that the old warship should be re-named the Flying Dutchman, after the ghost ship of maritime legend which was fated to circle the world's oceans for ever.

There was great amusement at the fact that the Russian ocean-going tug pulling the Clemenceau to India is captained by a man called Sergei Potemkin. Grigory Potemkin was an 18th-century Russian officer who created fake villages to impress the Tsarina. Battleship Potemkin is a celebrated silent film made in 1925 by the Russian director, Sergei Eisenstein.

Greenpeace and other environmental pressure groups object to the practice of sending asbestos-riddled old ships for scrapping in Third World breakers' yards. They say such ships should be labelled "waste products" under the 1989 Basel convention.

Greenpeace boarded the Clemenceau briefly off the Egyptian coast last week and claims there are still 500 tons of asbestos in the aircraft carrier. The French Defence Ministry described the figure as "absurd" and says that the ship never had more than 160 tons. It claims all but 45 tons have been removed in Toulon and the remainder cannot be dislodged without sinking the ship.

In any case, the French government argues, the Clemenceau, although no longer a warship, remains the property of a sovereign state and so is exempt from the Basel charter.

This argument appeared to have been accepted by Egypt, which refused permission for the Clemenceau to enter the Suez canal on Friday. The Environment Ministry in Cairo said yesterday that the ship "does not represent an environmental danger to Egypt." The Suez Canal Authority said the Clemenceau would be allowed to proceed after a technical examination.

In India, controversy about the fate of the old warship is deepening. Its "final" voyage may not prove to be so final after all.

Three of the country's largest unions have asked India's Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, to refuse the carrier until it is cleared of all toxic materials. "The warship is a threat to the workers' health and the environment," the unions wrote in the letter to him.

Greenpeace argues that it is cynical and environmentally unsound for Western shipowners, including governments, to send old ships to breakers' yards in the developing world where workers are not properly trained or protected.