Red faces over Danube piracy

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AN unprecedented incident of piracy on the Danube is causing concern and embarrassment among regional governments and international organisations charged with monitoring sanctions against Serbia.

A Bulgarian tanker with 6,000 tons of diesel oil on board, believed to have been hijacked from the Bulgarian port of Somovit last Thursday, was yesterday lying off the Serbian port of Prahovo, despite an international trade embargo against Serbia, Western diplomats said. Bulgarian customs officials said they saw through binoculars two men on the deck of the Han Kubrat pointing guns at seven members of the crew lined up with their hands behind their heads.

Boats operated by the Western European Union (WEU), charged with patrolling the Danube to prevent such incidents, failed to stop the flight of the tanker and six accompanying barges. One diplomat said: 'The Bulgarian authorities waited for the WEU to do something because they wanted to avoid possible difficulties with the Serbs afterwards, and the WEU waited for the Bulgarians to do something because the hijackers had apparently threatened to blow up the ship. It was not very satisfactory and quite embarrassing.'

Western diplomats said the hijack may have been the work of Serb groups such as 'White Rose' or 'New Byzantium', who have been operating a racket on the Danube, extorting levies from ships passing from one non-Yugoslav destination to another. They said the operation may have been backed by Serbian extremist nationalists such as Vojislav Seselj or Zeljko Raznjatovic - known by his nom de guerre, Arcan - who has been running a chain of outlets for illegally imported petrol.

However, the fact that the oil had not yet been off-loaded at Prahovo suggested that the Serbian authorities were embarrassed by the incident at a time when they were seeking to avoid further confrontation with the West, a European diplomat said. 'What is more alarming is that armed gangs of Serb nutters should have started taking up arms and operating in neighbouring countries,' he added.

Bulgarian officials said that the hijackers could also be freelances from Russia, or even Bulgaria itself, working with the Serbs for profit. One customs official suggested that some of the crew members were posing as kidnappers.

The ship with its oil cargo had been stranded off Somovit after the Bulgarian authorities impounded it as long as two months ago; the key question was where the oil was originally loaded. Bulgarian officials believe it originated in the Black Sea and was supplied by Russia, the Ukraine or another republic of the former Soviet Union.

The Bulgarian ambassador in Belgrade has asked the Yugoslav authorities to arrest the 'presumed terrorists' and return the ship and cargo to Bulgaria. The United Nations sanctions committee in New York is also investigating the incident.