Turkey to tighten control of straits

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The Independent Online
SHOCKED by yet another oil tanker collision on its narrow Bosporus waterway - with at least 24 crewmen dead - Turkey yesterday underlined its intention to override Russian unease and tighten control of sea traffic through the straits of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles.

'It's like having atom bombs passing every day through Istanbul, a city of 10 million people,' said the Environment Minister, Rize Akcali. He vowed that Turkey would not flinch from implementing a controversial new security code on 1 July.

Sunday's accident took its toll of the Filipino, Malay and Indian crews on board the Cypriot tanker Nassia and the Cypriot cargo ship Ship Broker, which collided in clear weather just before midnight. Flames engulfed the two ships, trapping crewmen in the superstructure. Police with loudhailers called from launches for them to leap into the water. Local fishermen in wooden boats helped search for survivors and oil-covered corpses.

Late yesterday the stricken Cypriot tanker was slowly being towed back out of the northern entrance to the Bosporus into the Black Sea, thick smoke and flames still flaring out of a gash in its port bow.

The collision occurred just after the northbound cargo ship had dropped its pilot and the southbound tanker was about to take a pilot on board.

Some Turkish newspapers criticised Istanbul's capacity to deal with such a crisis and said that some firefighters' actions had even spread the flames. But for Turkish officials, the fundamental problem lay elsewhere.

Turkey has worried for years about increased usage of the route from the Black Sea to the Aegean and Mediterranean via the Bosporus, the Sea of Marmara and the Dardanelles. It is a vital trade route for Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, south Russia and Georgia.

The 19-mile Bosporus narrows to just 700m in width, has fast, unpredictable currents and a helmsman must change direction at least 14 times during a transit. The number of ships has risen from a few each month in the 1930s to 60 a day in 1992, many of them far bigger than in the past.

Yet the straits are still governed by the 1936 Montreux Convention, which sets out the conditions of free passage in peacetime for almost all shipping. Turkey is especially concerned that Russia and American oil companies want the production from huge new oil fields in the former Soviet Union to be shipped out in tankers by this cheap route.

The oil aboard the stricken tanker Nassia, for instance, came from the same Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk that Moscow hopes will become the main entrepot for such traffic. This especially rankles in Ankara since it hoped that the oil production of Turkic states like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan would be shipped by fee-paying pipelines through Turkey.

Turkey has made clear it will use the latest Bosporus accident - reportedly the 40th big incident in 34 years - to back its demand for new security precautions after 1 July. These stipulate that ships carrying oil and dangerous cargo must give notice of their intention to sail through the straits, and that they will not be able to travel at the same time. New visibility minimums will apply to ships more than 150m long. Large vessels will be fined if they move without permission.

The effect will be to make oil-tanker traffic more time- consuming and perhaps more costly. Russia is also uneasy on another count: accepting a Turkish right to issue permits for tankers, Russian diplomats say, may open the way for Turkey being allowed to claim the right to ban them as well.

(Photograph omitted)