Romania shippers block Danube indefinitely

ON THE RIVER DANUBE, Sep 9, 2000 -- (Reuters) Romanian shippers blockaded the River Danube on Friday to protest against trade losses since NATO's air campaign against Serbia last year and demand a quick resumption of river traffic.

"The blockage is indefinite," Barbu Chirita, vice-president of the Romanian sailors' trade union federation, told Reuters aboard the Giurgiu 5, a tugboat moored in midstream.

The action is unlikely to have much effect on shipping on Europe's longest river, as traffic has been reduced to a trickle since the 1999 air war.

Ten barges and five tugboats began blocking a stretch of water under Romanian jurisdiction, one mile (1.609 km) east of the Bulgarian port of Silistra, early in the day.

"The Romanian government and the European Union have failed to restore traffic on the Danube and to enforce international rules regulating navigation on the river," Chirita said.

Romanian shippers say they have lost some USD 150 million in trade since June 1999, when NATO destroyed bridges in Serbia, on Romania's western border. The debris left in the Serbian stretch of the river makes sailing difficult, and a pontoon bridge made of barges at Novi Sad blocks all shipping.

Romanians complain that the Serbs are allowing vessels from Ukraine and Bulgaria to sail through.


"The problem is that Romania supported NATO during the bombing and Serbs can't forgive that. But maybe our blockade...will make them change their minds," a sailor on board the Giurgiu 5 said.

The halt in international traffic has deprived Romania of its least expensive link to Western Europe. Thousands of Romanian sailors and port operators have lost their jobs.

"Their families now struggle to survive," said Stan Bone, general manager of Giurgiunav, Romania's main river shipper.

"We might lose our strategic river-going fleet, sailors and logistics if international traffic remains blocked. This is unacceptable," Bone said.

Giurgiunav has 70 barges and two luxury passenger boats waiting at anchor in various upstream ports.

"We lost trading partners in Austria, Germany and Hungary with whom we had contracts since the 1970s. They have certainly found other shippers. But what to do? Life goes on."

Another shipping executive said shippers were bitter over the European Union's failure to address the Danube issue.

"We hear only big words. We are fed up with diplomacy. We want to see action. The EU should have paid compensations to shipping firms affected by the Kosovo war," he said.

The EU earmarked USD 21 million for clearing the river in July.

But the government of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is linking resumption of normal traffic to financial help repairing damage from the NATO air war, launched to halt Serb repression in the mainly ethnic Albanian province of Kosovo.

Original article