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Banned from India, Defunct French Warship Returns Home


After a two-month voyage bound for India's shipwrecking yards, France's defunct aircraft carrier Clemenceau is returning home after experts concluded it carries far more asbestos than French authorities originally claimed. The saga of the Clemenceau was an embarrassment for the French government.

Once the pride of France, the decommissioned warship is now the country's shame. After weeks of uncertainty over the Clemenceau's fate, French President Jacques Chirac ordered late Wednesday that the ship return home. Mr. Chirac's decision comes on the eve of a visit to India, where opposition has been growing against the ships planned dismantlement in the Alang shipwrecking yards.

Ever since the Clemenceau steamed out of the port of Toulon on December 31, it has been the object of a growing international dispute. Greenpeace and several environmental groups argue it carries far more asbestos on board than the 45 or so tons French officials first claimed. Egyptian authorities originally blocked the Clemenceau from entering the Suez Canal en route for India, for fears of its toxic cargo.

When Egypt finally gave the green light, the Clemenceau received another setback: India's supreme court barred the ship from entering Indian waters pending a determination whether the ship was too hazardous to be dismantled. That decision was expected Monday. But the court said it would tap a new committee of experts, and make a final ruling scheduled for Friday.

Greenpeace hails Mr. Chirac's announcement as a victory.

Yannick Jadot, head of Greenpeace's campaign in France, told French radio that he hoped Paris will assume a leadership role to ensure other toxic European ships are dismantled safely. He said safeguards were needed so poisonous materials could be removed from such vessels without harming the environment or workers' health.

But Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie still argues the government's choice of sending the Clemenceau to India had been a responsible one.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, she insisted it was better to send the Clemenceau to India rather than letting it languish in a French port. She said the Alang shipyard would have followed international standards to ensure that health and environmental concerns were met.

The Clemenceau is now returning to France. For the time being, its unclear just where it will finally be dismantled.

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