Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Israeli gunboats fire, stop Turkish evacuation ship: minister

Israeli gunboats fire, stop Turkish evacuation ship: minister
Published: 7/25/2006

ANKARA - Israeli gunboats fired warning shots at a Turkish ferry helping evacuate Australians from Lebanon and held it for several hours, Transport Minister Binali Yildirim said here Tuesday.

No evacuees were on board the high-speed ferry Akcakoca when the incident occurred late Monday, the Anatolia news agency quoted Yildirim as saying.

"The Akcakoca was stopped by Israeli gunboats last night while en route from Beirut to Famagusta," in Turkish-controlled eastern Cyprus, the minister said.

"It was held until morning. The problem was resolved through diplomatic channels by the Australian embassy and the Turkish foreign and transport ministries," he said.

Yildirim said the Israeli boats fired shots to divert the ship, but neither vessel nor crew were hit.

"The foreign ministry is seeking to learn the reason for the Israeli action," he added.

A Turkish diplomat told AFP that the incident appeared to have resulted from a lack of coordination with Israeli authorities on the evacuation operations and that the matter was being gradually resolved.

After it was released, the Akcakoca sailed on to Famagusta to refuel, and it is now on its way to Beirut to pick up Australian nationals and bring them to the southern Turkish port of Mersin.

Mersin, along with Cyprus, is one of the main hubs for the evacuation of foreigners from Lebanon, hit by relentless Israeli bombardments that have left more than 380 dead so far.

Yildirim said 7,194 civilians -- among them Canadians, Swedes, Australians and Danes -- had been brought to Mersin so far, adding that he expected the final count to reach tens of thousands.

More than 1,000 Turks arrived in Mersin on Tuesday aboard the Iskenderun, a Turkish navy-owned passenger ferry, in one of the largest evacuation operations involving Turkish citizens.

"There are no more Turks left to evacuate from Lebanon," Yildirim said.

French diplomats said about 1,500 civilians, most of them French, are expected in Mersin on Wednesday aboard the French warship Mistral, which will set out for Beirut later Tuesday.

Officials in Mersin said they expect ships carrying Germans, Australians and Canadians to dock at the Mediterranean port in the coming days.

Nine countries -- Australia, Canada, Sweden, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Mexico, Moldova and the United States -- are using Mersin to evacuate their citizens from Lebanon.

07/25/2006 13:18 GMT

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