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Mariners Stranded off Syria

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By Reuters 2015-10-16 16:52:29

Alexander Tkachenko, a 60-year-old sea captain, has a front-row view of Russia's military intervention in the Syria conflict: his cargo ship has been languishing off the Syrian coast for nearly three months, surrounded by Russian warships.

Tkachenko’s Russian-owned vessel and his crew of 10 Ukrainian sailors have nothing to do with the conflict, but were stranded after they delivered a cargo of electricity transformers to Syria and then got caught up in a lawsuit.

Being stuck off the shore of a war zone has added extra uncertainty for Tkachenko and his crew as they try to resolve the dispute around their vessel, the UCF-6, and get home.

"The minute someone starts firing I will weigh anchor and leave," the captain told Reuters by phone from on board the ship. "If anything threatens my crew, why should I wait for someone to shoot me?"

So far, he said, the crew has not witnessed any military action but had seen plenty of shipping traffic at the Syrian-government controlled port of Tartous, where Russia leases a naval base.

It is through that port that Russia has been pushing much of the weapons and equipment for a military intervention in Syria that has angered Western powers. Tkachenko said there were three war ships, which he presumed were Russian, anchored at the port, and patrol boats often sailed in the area.

His vessel has been impounded, so is not allowed to sail away. The crews' passports are being held by officials on shore. They are theoretically permitted to leave, but if they go without the ship they could lose their wages.

Several crew members flew home because "they went crazy", the captain said: "What do you think it would be like to look at the same faces for nine months?"

The rest pass the time reading books, playing cards, watching Arabic television they cannot understand and borrowing each other's films and TV series to watch on laptops.

"We work, we service the equipment, we keep watch," he said.

WELCOME TURNS SOUR

In the midst of a civil war, the commercial dispute that stranded them sounds prosaic. In July, the UCF-6 delivered three electrical transformers to Syria on its way from China to Russia. The Syrian state electric transmission agency said the delivery was late, and sued the shipowner, Moscow-based United Cargo Fleet, in local court.

"They welcomed us almost with an orchestra, cheerfully," Tkachenko, said of the Syrian reaction when his ship first docked. "Their reporters came. They have electricity shortages and they had waited for this cargo for a long time."

United Cargo Fleet's financial director Mikhail Bogdanov said the Syrians were suing for 500,000 euros. He blamed the delayed delivery on engine trouble. The Syrian government did not reply to a request for comment.

The Ukrainian consul in Damascus, Andrei Gutovsky, said he had applied for permission to visit the sailors but the Syrian authorities did not get back to him.

Russia's military support for the Syrian government does not seem to have helped persuade Damascus to release the ship, the captain said.

"At least the Ukrainians call us up, ask us how we are, how can they help," said Tkachenko. "But Russia, as usual, is indifferent."

The Russian Foreign Ministry said the case was a long-standing commercial dispute, and made no further comment. An employee who answered the telephone at the Russian embassy in Damascus said he was not aware the ship was impounded.