January 3, 2006

Greenpeace members held after

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Police detained around a dozen Greenpeace activists in New Delhi on Tuesday during a protest over the planned scrapping in an Indian yard of a French aircraft carrier they said contains tonnes of highly toxic material.

The environmental group, which organized the protest outside the French embassy, urged Paris and New Delhi not to allow the Clemenceau to reach a scrapyard in the western state of Gujarat without first being decontaminated in France.

Greenpeace says that vulnerable scrapyard workers in countries such as India risk developing serious health problems after handling toxic waste.

"We call upon the Indian Ministry of Environment to scrap their decision to allow this ship to come to India," Greenpeace campaigner Ramapati Kumar said, adding that India, unlike France, lacked the facilities to handle the ship safely.

"India is not a dumping ground for France," Kumar said.

The ship set sail from the French naval base of Toulon last week for the massive Alang ship-breaking yard in Gujarat, despite similar protests in France.

Greenpeace says the decommissioned ship -- which served in the 1991 Gulf War -- is fitted with hundreds of tonnes of hazardous material, including 500 tonnes of asbestos.

The protesters later met French Ambassador Dominique Girard, who said that the most dangerous work of removing 115 tonnes of brittle asbestos had been done in France and the remaining amount in the ship was there as the carrier had to be kept seaworthy for its final voyage to India.

"So what you have on board now is just a smaller quantity of about 45 tonnes of non-brittle asbestos which will be removed here (in Gujarat), securely with all precautions," Girard told reporters.

Girard said arrangements had been made for safely scrapping the ship without endangering the workers at Alang.

"Indian engineers will be working there (Alang), and French engineers will be present during the whole process, to make sure that the scrapping will be done in the best possible way."

Indian environment officials have yet to react to Greenpeace's concerns. Exposure to asbestos can damage the lungs, and long-term inhalation can lead to lung cancer.

"We don't want toxic scrap to come to our country," Greenpeace activist Vivek Sinha said as dozens of policemen surrounded protesters.

Greenpeace said in a report published in December that thousands of workers involved in the shipbreaking industry in countries such as India, Pakistan and China have probably died over the past two decades due to accidents or exposure to toxic waste.