TONGA LOWERS ITS TROUBLED FLAG OF CONVENIENCE

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LONDON, England (May 23, 2002 – New Zealand Herald/Reuters)---The scandal-ridden Tonga flag of convenience will be blacklisted, an early victim of an international effort to clean up the high seas.

In January, the Tongan-flagged general cargo ship the Karine A was seized in the Red Sea carrying 50 tons of arms and explosives, which Israel said was bound for Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

Just two months later, another Tongan-flagged vessel, the Monica, was apprehended by the French navy trying to transport 1,000 Kurdish refugees to Italy.

"It's quite clear that the Tongan register had been identified as a soft touch by organized crime," said David Cockroft, general secretary of seafarers' body the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF).

"There are other registers in the same category and we hope they'll be put out of business too."

Tonga closed its maritime registry recently and the Paris Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) said that the registry is due to be blacklisted until it ceases to exist in April 2003.

"Tonga is one of those rare flags that managed to get on our blacklist in just a year," the general secretary of the Paris MOU, Richard Schiferli told Reuters.

The Paris MOU is made up of 19 maritime authorities, including 18 from Europe and Canada, which have agreed to implement a harmonized system of inspection procedures.

Schiferli said that the fledgling registry, which was launched in 2000 and has about 200 ships under its flag, will be published in an official annual report which ranks detention rates later this year.

"There are a number of flags who are in the same league... but it's one more flag on our blacklist that we don't need to worry about," he said, adding there were around 25 flags on the list.

The decision to wind up the registry comes in a week that the United Nations is seeking to hammer out far-reaching changes to its maritime security laws to counteract the threat of terrorist attack through ports and shipping lines.

Greek businessman Pelliss Papadopoulos, who runs the Tonga registry from the port of Piraeus, remained defiant.

"Why is everyone so concerned with Tonga, while other flags' vessels have been linked with narcotics, illegal immigrants and carrying guns?" he asked.

He said the problem boiled down to port authorities, coast guards and government security agencies not checking ships properly.

Papadopoulos said Tonga's detention rate averaged six percent, which was small in comparison with other well-established international registries.

According to the 2000 Paris MOU list, Bolivia was worst with a 70 percent detention rate, amounting to 28 ships held for law breaking.

The flags of Albania, Sao Tome and Principe, Honduras, Cambodia, Lebanon, Syria and Belize also figured highly.

For additional reports from The New Zealand Herald, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/ New Zealand Herald.

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