KIRIBATI WAVES JURISDICTION IN FREIGHTER MISHAP

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By Patrick Antoine Decloitre

SUVA, Fiji (Oceania Flash, Aug. 22) - Authorities in Kiribati have given the nod to a French request to hold a Kiribati-flagged cargo vessel, the Ocean Jasper, that was involved in the sinking of French trawler Sokalique last week and the death of one of the seven men onboard, the French government said on Tuesday through a spokesman.

Diplomatic talks had been underway between the French and Kiribati governments since Saturday, as a result of a fatal collision that involved, on Friday last week, a cargo ship registered in the Pacific island state, the Ocean Jasper, and a French fishing vessel, the Sokalique.

The collision has caused the death of one of the seven French fishermen onboard.

A judicial inquiry had been launched immediately after the accident, but under the United Nations Convention of the law of the sea, France cannot prosecute the Kiribati-flagged vessel, the Ocean Jasper, because the accident took place in international waters off the French western coast of Brittany, off Ouessant Island.

Instead, the only possibility for France to be allowed to press charges and bring the matter to courts locally was if authorities in Kiribati waived their right (as the international law of the sea authorises them) to prosecute the vessel bearing its flag.

But if Kiribati decided to not to waive this right, then the French government would be forced to let the Ocean Jasper go.

"The Kiribati authorities have responded formally and favourably to the French request regarding the immobilisation of the Ocean Jasper vessel and its crew, for the duration and in view of facilitating the investigation in France", a spokesman for the French ministry of foreign affairs said on Monday in a statement from Paris.

Meanwhile, the Ocean Jasper is still being held in France, in the port of Brest, where it is undergoing repairs.

The matter, before French courts, could translate into an unintentional homicide case.

Earlier this week, the French Foreign Affairs ministry had stated that "A request for a formal agreement that would allow us to immobilise the Ocean Jasper vessel has been transmitted to them (Kiribati), in accordance with the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea of the 10 December 1982. We have expressed the wish that French authorities be allowed to carry out their investigation regarding the Ocean Jasper and that this matter be followed by legal action".

The 85-metre Ocean Jasper was transporting steel about 100 kilometres off the French coast, in a highly frequented maritime channel.

It is believed to have collided with a 20-metre French fishing vessel, the trawler Sokalique.

After the impact, the French vessel has sunk in a matter of minutes.

One of the French fishermen onboard, 58-year-old Captain Bernard Jobard, has died, the other six crew members were rescued.

Initial investigation has established that traces of paint from the Ocean Jasper were found on the hull of the Sokalique.

The Ocean Jasper's captain, who is a national from Azerbaijan, has told French officials he did not see the Sokalique and believed the French vessel did not have its lights on.

The accident had prompted angry reactions from the victim's family, who have lashed out at what they termed "rogue" and "criminal" vessels.

Unions and the family had also, on Monday, called on French President Nicolas Sarkozy to hear their plea and take every necessary step so that the suspected vessel is not allowed to leave French jurisdiction.

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