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French Version

Growing tanker traffic threatens Turkish straits

Proposed oil pipelines could dramatically reduce the number of ships

Congestion in the Turkish straits, with one oil or gas tanker passing through every 10 minutes on average, is expected to figure high in the talks here Monday between Turkish and Russian officials during Russian President Vladimir Putin's official visit.

Turkish officials have long sounded alarm bells over the huge threat the tankers pose to the Dardanelles and Bosphorus Straits, at either end of the Marmara Sea, which links the Black Sea with the Mediterranean.

The Bosphorus in particular, difficult to negotiate because of its sinuous geography and treacherous currents, surrounded by this megalopolis of 12 million plus people and the fourth busiest waterway in the world, is under constant threat, experts say.

In 1979 and in 1994, tanker crashes in the Bosphorus claimed 41 and 28 deaths, respectively, and officials have long warned that the increase in maritime traffic, coupled with the growing size of the tankers and of Istanbul's population, make for a disaster waiting happen.

A tanker explosion in the Bosphorus, they warn, would result in a human and environmental disaster of immense proportions.

Turkish Coast Guard figures show that in 2003, 46,930 vessels crossed the straits, more than 8,000 of them laden with dangerous cargo, mostly oil or liquid petroleum gas.

The estimated figure for this year is 53,000 ships, some of them carrying petroleum products totaling 144 million tons, most of them aboard Russian tankers.

"It has become obvious that the Bosphorus cannot handle any further increases in maritime traffic," a Turkish diplomat explained. "As things stand, weather conditions can cause delays of one or two weeks for tankers and this means the oil companies are losing money." Tankers carrying Russian crude to world markets have no choice but to cross the straits, and Moscow was irked by a 1998 Turkish decision, motivated by environmental considerations, restrict Bosphorus traffic.

Russia accused Turkey of violating the 1936 Montreux Convention, which regulates the use of the Straits and says the Bosphorus and Dardanelles are international waters open to all vessels, except in time of war.

The only limit the Turks could impose was to oblige tankers to cross the Bosphorus during daylight hours alone.

The result: huge traffic jams of tankers waiting outside the waterway's northern and southern entrances.

Another Turkish diplomat added, however, that "the Russians have seen the light these past few years and are working on new options." Among them is a Russian proposal to build a pipeline from the Black Sea to Turkish Thrace, which would greatly reduce the number of tankers travelling from the Russian port of Novorossiisk for the Bosphorus and Dardanelles.

Turkey, however, would prefer a pipeline from its Black Sea port of Samsun to Ceyhan, on the the Mediterranean, that would in part run parallel to the Baku-Tbilissi-Ceyhan pipeline, which should be operational from 2005.

If things remain unchanged, 200,000 tons of crude are projected to transit through the waterways by the end of the decade, making navigation in the Bosphorus impossible, experts warned.

Beirut,12 06 2004
The Daily Star
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