US to lift naval blockade of Aqaba

THE United States has agreed to lift the naval blockade of Aqaba, imposed to enforce sanctions against Iraq, after appeals from King Hussein that it was harming Jordan's economy. Agreement was announced after talks between the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, and the Jordanian monarch at the king's residence at Windsor Great Park, Berkshire. Mr Christopher said ships' cargoes would be subject to onshore inspections in future; this would be done by Lloyd's Register of London.

For all Mr Christopher's assertion that the new system sould 'sustain and enhance sanctions against Iraq' he has in effect gone along with King Hussein's suggestion. The King, while demonstrating that Jordan is complying with UN sanctions, will not have to explain away the humiliating presence of US troops on Jordanian soil, merely inspectors from what Mr Christopher described as a non-profit making, independent organisation.

In return, King Hussein pledged Jordan would resume a full role in the search for a comprehensive Middle East peace. On 28 March he said Jordan would not resume full participation in peace talks until the Aqaba issue was resolved.

Jordan has always felt hard done by over the blockade on Aqaba. 'Jordan was treated in a way different from other (states)' the King said yesterday. 'I made it very, very clear that we are adhering to UN Security Council resolutions. But we are very, very deeply concerned at the suffering of the Iraqi people.'

Since Iraq's only port, Basra, was closed by hostilities at the start of the Iraq-Iran war 14 years ago, it has relied on supplies being shipped to Aqaba and transported through Jordan. After imposition of UN sanctions in August 1990, the Multinational Interception Force has stopped, searched and often turned away shipping destined for the port. Many ships were suspected of sanctions-busting.

A US official who briefed reporters after the meeting yesterday said the 12-nation naval force had turned away 460 ships - about one in 10 - but only six because it was suspected they were carrying contraband cargo for Iraq. The rest had papers out of order.

Jordan said it was losing hundreds of millions of pounds a year because of the interceptions and shipping agents complained they were paying huge insurance rates. Mr Christopher said some 'fine tuning' was needed to put the arrangements into effect. This he expected 'in the very near future'.

Mr Christopher is going on to Geneva and then to Riyadh for a meeting with Arab allies from the Gulf War with Iraq. He is then due to travel to Egypt, Israel and Syria. His Middle East tour was to have taken place two weeks ago, so that he would have been in the region on the date - 13 April - set by the PLO-Israel accords for the implementation of Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and Jericho area. He had been hoping to bask in the reflected glory of this achievement, even though it owed nothing to US diplomacy. Agreement, however, has still not been reached.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, has been holding talks in Moscow on the first visit there by an Israeli prime minister. Although the Soviet Union had been the first country to recognise the state of Israel after it declared independence in 1948, Moscow has always been an unequal partner in the search for peace.

Russia is formally a co-sponsor of the current Middle East peace talks but plays second fiddle to the US.

GAZA CITY - Israeli soldiers shot and wounded 12 Palestinians yesterday during skirmishes in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian sources said, AFP reports. Eight were hit in Jabaliya camp when soldiers opened fire on demonstrators throwing stones at them.

(Photograph omitted)

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