Gale adds to bizarre saga of boat with no home

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The Independent Online

Greek coastguard helicopters lifted to safety yesterday the crew of a former Soviet aircraft carrier sold to the Chinese as a floating "fun palace" after a gale tore the vessel from its tugboats.

Greek coastguard helicopters lifted to safety yesterday the crew of a former Soviet aircraft carrier sold to the Chinese as a floating "fun palace" after a gale tore the vessel from its tugboats.

The rescue of the three Russians, three Ukrainians and a Filipino formed the latest chapter in the bizarre saga of the Varyag, which has become the subject of a three-way tug of war between China, the United States and Turkey for more than a year.

The vessel was to have been the jewel of the Soviet navy when it was designed in the 1980s. Construction began under Soviet auspices but after the collapse of the Soviet Union it was handed over to Ukraine. The newly independent state decided to halt construction of the carrier for financial reasons in 1992.

Condemned to rust in a Black Sea port, it was sold for £14m in 1998 to a Macau-based agency, which promised it a glamorous future as a floating hotel and casino off the former Portuguese colony.

But nearly 18 months have been spent just to get it from the Ukrainian shipyards into the Mediterranean.

For more than a year the rudderless, engineless carrier has been circling the Black Sea, shunted by Dutch tugs and blocked by an anxious Turkish government from entering the narrow straits to Istanbul.

Ankara said that the 1,000ft 55,000-ton hull might harm the winding waterway. Turkey's maritime affairs minister, Ramazan Mirzaoglu, said: "Since the straits are not going to be bigger, this [vessel] should get smaller."

The issue of size may have only been a cover, however. Washington is reported to have claimed that the Varyag was in fact bound for the Chinese military as a template for aircraft carriers that might one day counter US naval presence in the South China Sea.

The mystery deepened with the disclosure that the owners of the agency in Macau were former Chinese naval officers who could not be contacted in Macau.

Turkey withdrew its opposition to the Varyag's entry into the straits in August, apparently mollified by Chinese promises to build two power plants in Turkey, though the latest disaster suggests the aircraft carrier might never reach its new home in China.

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