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Chirac red-flags scrap warship

Paris, Feb. 15 (Agencies): President Jacques Chirac today ordered a French warship bound for a scrapyard in Gujarat to return to French territorial waters pending a final decision on how to dispose of the asbestos-laden vessel.

The statement by Chirac’s office came after France’s top administrative court ordered the suspension of the transfer of the aircraft carrier Clemenceau to the shipbreaking yard at Alang in the western state.

India’s Supreme Court had already banned the 27,000-tonne decommissioned warship from entering the country’s territorial waters pending a final decision on whether the Clemenceau’s asbestos represents a health hazard to Indian scrapyard workers.

“The President has decided to put this ship in French waters on a position of stand-by which offers all security guarantees until a definitive solution for its dismantling is found,” said the statement released by Chirac’s official Elysee Palace.

Chirac, whose state visit to India on Sunday has been overshadowed by legal wrangling over the Clemenceau, also ordered a fresh study to determine exactly how much asbestos remains on board the carrier.

The ship’s journey has been beset by troubles, including a delay of more than a week after Egypt ordered the vessel inspected before it could cross Suez Canal.

The Clemenceau, once a symbol of French naval prowess, was scheduled to reach Alang early next month. It left France on December 31 and has been waiting in the northern Indian Ocean for weeks, pending a decision by the Supreme Court to allow it in.

At the crux of the problems were varying estimates about how much asbestos was still on board the decommissioned ship. Environmentalists protesting against France’s decision to send the ship to India for scrapping say they believe there is between 500 and 1,000 tonnes of asbestos on board the ship, risking the health of Indian workers.

French officials say they have removed most of the asbestos, leaving only 45 tonnes needed to make the ship seaworthy.

France’s top administrative court issued a fast-track ruling today ordering the transfer to be suspended, in response to complaints by Greenpeace and three anti-asbestos groups. It also sent the case to a Paris administrative court for a detailed legal ruling, which could take up to six months.

Chirac said he hoped the European Union would consider strengthening Europe’s capacity to dispose of pollution, and that leaders worldwide would accelerate efforts to improve international rules about waste disposal.

“The government will now examine ways of reforming France’s policy on exporting waste materials. It will also create a panel of ministers to study how to manage maritime wreckage with partner countries,” Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin’s office said.

France had earlier argued that it had few choices on what to do with the hulking 26,700-tonne vessel, with defence minister Michele Alliot-Marie saying there were no suitable scrapyards in Europe.

Greenpeace France director Pascal Husting welcomed the decision to recall the ship. “This is a victory for international law, a victory for Indian workers, and a victory for workers all across Asia,” he said.

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