PARIS, Feb 18 (AFP) – France was preparing Wednesday to scramble its navy
for a dramatic high-seas chase after a Philippine freighter suspected of being
responsible for a collision that killed five French fishermen last month.
The freighter, the Seattle Trader, was in the Red Sea after having passed
through the Suez Canal and was heading for China, officials said.
“The situation is being closely followed by the navy. Certain means may be
deployed as soon as the legal conditions — notably agreement from the country
of registration of the ship concerned — are met,” French defence ministry
spokesman Jean-Francois Bureau told journalists.
France has been tracking several ships, including the Seattle Trader, since
the January 15 accident in which a French trawler operating in waters off
southern England sank with all crew members after being struck by a vessel
which left the scene without alerting authorities.
An underwater examination of the trawler, the Bugaled Breizh, suggested it
had been struck by a large and powerful ship, probably a freighter.
French investigators have issued an international warrant to allow them to
take their probe to foreign ports to hunt down those responsible, who risk
five years in prison if found guilty of manslaughter by neglecting safety
measures, failure to help persons in danger and fleeing the scene.
A junior transport minister, Dominique Bussereau, said: “Since the killings
of the sailors on the Bugaled Breizh, we have conducted a real global manhunt.”
He added that the Seattle Trader, a 39,000-tonne vessel built in 2000, had
been “tracked extremely closely” and that “we are now reaching the end” of the
The owner of the Seattle Trader, the Manila-based company Victoria Ship
Management, denied Wednesday that its ship was involved in the collision.
The Canadian coast guard had inspected the freighter after the January
collision and “worked out that the Seattle Trader was more than 16 kilometres
(10 miles) away from the trawler when it went down,” the firm’s boss, Romulo
Victoriano, told France 3 television by telephone.
“As a result, the crew can’t be blamed,” he said.
Under a 1982 UN convention governing shipping in international waters, no
vessel can be stopped or held unless the “flag state” – the country where it
is registered – so orders.
A French official close to the investigation said a “process was underway”
to get Philippine authorities to make such an order.
The defence ministry said one of France’s options if it got the green light
from Manila was to scramble a navy patrol aircraft stationed in Djibouti, at
the southern exit of the Red Sea, and a frigate with was in the general area.
If the Philippines declined to allow the freighter to be stopped, “we could
possibly make an overflight to take photos of the ship, but nothing more,” the
ministry spokesman said.
A French representative on the European Maritime Safety Agency, Francis
Vallat, told France Inter radio that he believed that the Philippines would
accede to the French request “taking into account the potentially heavy
charges being brought” in the case.
Subject: France news