Polish boat opens fire on German 'tax-free' cruiser

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The Independent Online

A Polish patrol boat was alleged to have chased and fired warning shots at a German pleasure steamer in the Baltic yesterday after a dispute over customs and tax regulations that appears likely to bring relations between the two countries to a new low.

The incident occurred after the Adler-Dania, which was packed with tourists and bound for the Polish port of Swinoujscie, was boarded late on Tuesday by three Polish customs officials who demanded to see the ship's supply of alcohol and cigarettes.

German reports said that after being informed that the Polish officials were not in uniform and were insisting that the ship's alcohol be confiscated, the captain of the Adler-Dania immediately turned his ship around and made for the open sea, with the officials still on board.

Eyewitnesses, including the crew of the German ship, said a Polish patrol boat gave chase. One German crew member said sailors on the Polish vessel sent a volley of pistol shots over the top of the Adler-Dania in an attempt to force the ship to turn round.

A frantic pursuit ensued with the Polish patrol boat attempting several times to block the Adler-Dania before giving up when the vessel entered German waters. The three Polish customs officials were released after being questioned by police in the German seaside town of Herringsdorf.

Polish officials said the patrol boat had simply fired two flares in an attempt to encourage the German captain to stop his ship. Polish media reports said the three customs officials had been kidnapped.

Jan Wilczynski, a spokesman for Polish customs, shrugged off suggestions that the incident amounted to a major diplomatic incident but said they intended to prosecute the captain and his company for "illicit trading".

Polish officials frequently confiscate large quantities of Polish cigarettes from visiting German pleasure boats, claiming that the goods are being sold to German passengers without customs clearance and at prices far higher than the amount charged in ordinary Polish shops.

In mid-October some 380,000 Polish cigarettes were confiscated from a German ship that arrived in Swinoujscie. Polish officials said yesterday that they suspected a similar scam was being conducted with Polish alcohol, which is about 30 per cent cheaper than in Germany. After the collapse of Communism in 1990, German pleasure cruise operators ran lucrative one-day tourist trips to Polish ports that specialised in the sale of duty free goods. However, the trade was officially halted in 2004 when Poland joined the European Union.

Poland has argued that German shipping companies selling cheap Polish goods to passengers are "damaging Polish economic interests".

Alwin Mueller, a spokesman for the German Insel and Hallig shipping line, which owns the Adler-Dania, said the company had now stopped all passages to Poland. He accused Polish officials of "stealing" German ships' cigarettes.

The German government, which will host a visit by Poland's President, Lech Kaczynski, later this month, tried to play down the dispute. "We should not turn this into a political issue," Ruprecht Polenz, the head of the government's foreign relations committee, said

Germany has been increasingly at loggerheads with Poland over the past year. Russo-German plans for an undersea Baltic gas pipeline linking the two countries led Warsaw to charge that Berlin had deliberately bypassed Poland.

Several German commentators have attacked the right-wing government of Prime Minister Jaroslav Kaczynski, the President's twin brother, over "Polish nationalism", and illiberal attitudes towards gays, abortion and Europe. Relations hit a low in July after a satirical article in a German magazine called President Kaczynski a "potato".