September 28, 2005

French army storms hijacked ferry in Mediterranean

BASTIA, France (Reuters) - French soldiers stormed a car
ferry in the Mediterranean Sea on Wednesday to recapture it
from about 50 striking workers who had seized the vessel in
protest at plans to privatize their ferry company.

Five army helicopters circled over the large Pascal-Paoli
ferry off the Mediterranean island of Corsica after dawn. About
10 soldiers descended down ropes that were dropped from the
helicopters and swiftly took control, witnesses said.

The protesters had commandeered the ferry from the southern
French port city of Marseille on Tuesday afternoon and set sail
for Corsica.

They were protesting against the planned privatisation of
state-owned ferry company SNCM, which is struggling to survive
against competition from a private ferry firm.

"In this delicate period, they managed -- without any
violence -- to take control of the SNCM's boat that had been
diverted illegally," French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy
said in a statement.

Media said the workers who seized the ferry could face up
to 20 years in prison, saying the law treats seizing the ferry
in a manner similar to the hijacking of a plane. Police said
they had detained the protesters for questioning.

Accompanied by three national marine boats, the ferry
quickly set sail for France's southern coast.


The government said on Tuesday it had picked an offer by
French company Butler Capital Partners to invest in the
loss-making ferry firm, which runs services to Corsica,
Sardinia, Algeria and Tunisia.

Financial difficulties coupled with government plans to
seek an injection of private capital into the 155-year-old
company have led to a series of strikes since last year,
bringing ferry traffic to a halt between mainland France and

Three people were injured during scuffles between
protesters and police at the Corsican port city of Bastia
during the night. Workers are angry over sell-off plans that
could lead to the loss of 400 jobs, and have blocked southern
French oil ports.

The protests add to the troubles of the conservative
government of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, which has
promised to make cutting unemployment a priority.

"The mutiny is politically delicate for the prime minister
who is facing his first big conflict," the left-leaning
Liberation newspaper said.

Shipping workers said on Wednesday they would extend a
24-hour strike at Marseille port, blocking access to the Lavera
petrochemicals complex and the oil port of Fos-sur-Mer.

On Tuesday, the blockade stopped oil tankers from
discharging, but had not yet affected the refining hub's
operations of about 570,000 barrels per day (bpd), French
petroleum industry body UFIP said.

The Lavera-Fos refinery hub is a major source of oil
products supply to the region, as well as to West Africa and
the United States. Fos is a key inlet for liquefied natural