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Varyag emerges from storm

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Nov. 8, 2001, 7 p.m. |
Rough waters pose another hurdle for hapless Ukrainian aircraft carrier ee days because of high winds, was reattached on Nov. 6 to one of its tugboats escorting it to China where it will be transformed into a floating casino.

The Soviet-built carrier Varyag – which has no engine or rudder – went adrift in the Aegean early Nov. 4 after a gale snapped cables attached to three tugboats. The seven crew members, including three Russians, three Ukrainians and a Filipino, were rescued by a navy helicopter.

The 306-meter vessel was caught in the storm after leaving the Black Sea and being towed through Turkey’s narrow Bosphorus strait on Nov. 1.

On Nov. 6 Portuguese sailor on one of the tug boats was killed as the tug tried to control the drifting hulk.

“He fell 4 meters while making efforts to control the aircraft carrier Varyag,” a Greek merchant marine ministry spokesman told Reuters.

The fiasco was the latest chapter in a bizarre saga involving the 55,000-tonne Varyag, which was on its way from the Black Sea to China following a 15-month diplomatic tussle between Beijing and Ankara.

Ferocious winds ripped the ropes connecting the engine-less, 307-meter hulk to three tugboats guiding it through the Aegean Sea.

The perilous journey was the latest twist in the life of the hapless vessel, a costly Soviet legacy to Ukraine.

Ukraine, glad to be rid of the white elephant, sold it for $20 million to a Chinese firm aiming to turn it into a floating casino and entertainment palace.

But it has taken since spring last year just to get it from a Ukrainian shipyard into the Mediterranean.

The seafaring monster was forced to turn in circles around the mouth of the Bosphorus for 15 months lashed to a Dutch tugboat while Beijing bargained with a reluctant Turkey to let it pass through the straits.

Ankara had insisted the vessel would pose too great a danger to bridges linking Europe and Asia but gave the final go-ahead on Nov. 1.

The gray giant passed without incident through the strait into the Sea of Marmara. The Bosphorus, one of the world’s busiest waterways, has been the scene of shipping accidents in the past. Turkey says the number of ships using it – 50,000 a year, including 2,500 oil tankers – has already reached dangerous levels.

But experts long argued that the Varyag, if properly handled, would be no danger to Istanbul. The foreign ministry, covetous of trade ties with Beijing, never opposed its passage. Resistance came largely from a nationalist maritime minister.

Diplomatic sources said the Turkish-Chinese deal included a tourism agreement and trade concessions by Beijing.

A helicopter stood on the deck of the carrier, which would have housed missiles, guns, 2,500 men and 35 warplanes had the Soviet Union not abruptly collapsed when it was only 80 percent built.

The Varyag began what should have been a 60-day trip to China in spring 2000. But soon after it left a Ukrainian shipyard, it was clear that all was not well.

After Turkey refused transit permission, Chinese payments to the Dutch tugboat company dried up. The company, ITC, paid out $8,000 a day keeping the Varyag circling in the Black Sea while high-level delegations shuttled between Beijing and Ankara.

Joop Timmermanns, the head of ITC, saw the passage of the Varyag as the end of a nightmare. “It’s all over now,” he told Reuters. “The Chinese have settled all the money issues.

“The issue now is whether the Varyag goes through the Suez canal or south around the Cape of Good Hope.”

The Chinese company Agencia Turistica e Diversoes Chong Lot Limitada says it plans to convert the Varyag into a pleasure palace of casinos, restaurants, hotel rooms and other entertainments.

Some have voiced skepticism about the declared plan, suggesting China was, in fact, seeking the technology to build its own aircraft carrier to fulfill Pacific sea-power ambitions.

Military experts say that while the Varyag represented the pinnacle of Soviet naval engineering at its conception, it would offer relatively little to China for any projects of its own.

The Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits are governed by Turkey under the 1936 Montreux Treaty, which guarantees all commercial ships the right of free passage.
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