Asbestos-laden French vessel allowed into Suez canal

January 24, 2006 - 0:0
PORT SAID, Egypt (AFP) -- An asbestos-insulated French warship was finally allowed by Egypt to enter the Suez canal on its passage to India for dismantling, after more than a week of controversy, Egyptian and French officials said.

The decommissioned aircraft carrier, the Clemenceau, had been prevented from sailing through the Suez canal for several days because of fears over the toxic chemicals it contained, before Cairo ruled it could make the voyage. "The aircraft carrier has entered the Suez canal," the spokesman for the canal authority, General Mohammad Moussa, told AFP.

Environmental activists are vehemently opposed to the move to send the Clemenceau to India for dismantling, saying ship workers will be at risk of asbestos poisoning.

They say the common practice of sending toxically contaminated vessels from the west to shipyards in India, Bangladesh, China and Pakistan -- where they are cut up by unprotected workers -- takes a grim toll on human health and the environment.

The Clemenceau, which took part in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, was taken out of service in 1997 when it was superseded by France's new, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle.

It left the Mediterranean port of Toulon under tow by a tug on December 31 after a long legal battle, and is due in India at the end of February.

The vessel ran into protests from the international environmental pressure group Greenpeace on January 12 as it approached the Egyptian coast.

Cairo then barred the vessel from the Suez canal and requested proof that the vessel was not violating the Basel Convention, which bans the export of hazardous waste.

Egypt eventually approved the ship's passage on January 15, saying documents provided by Paris proved the Clemenceau was a military vessel and therefore did not fall under the 1989 convention.