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Questions Over Azeri Ship Disaster Mount

Relatives of those who drowned in the sinking of the Merkury-2 in the Caspian Sea want answers to some basic questions.
By Zarema Velikhanova

More than two weeks after the sinking of the Azerbaijani ship Merkury-2 in the Caspian Sea, 38 people are still missing presumed dead and the cause of the tragedy - the second to hit the fleet this year - is still unknown.

The ship, which was carrying both passengers and a cargo of oil, sank in bad weather 130 km from Azerbaijan’s Caspian coast on October 22. Nine passengers were saved and only four bodies have been recovered so far. Six days after the tragedy, Azerbaijan held a national day of mourning.

So far, it has been impossible to establish the exact number of those who drowned, as most of the passengers on the ship, which was sailing from Baku to Aktau in Kazakstan, did not buy tickets. It’s been estimated that there were around 50 people on board, most Azerbaijani crewmembers and the rest passengers - four Azerbaijanis, two Russians and two Kazaks.

Merkury-2 ran into a severe storm early on the morning of October 22 and was buffeted by strong winds and waves 60 metres high.

According to Aidyn Bashirov, head of Kaspar, the shipping company that operated Merkury-2, the captain sent his last telegram at 9.20 am, when he reported that he had had to change course by 120 degrees.

The ship was lost around 90 minutes later. Those on board had time to put on life jackets, but could not use dinghies as the ship was tilting so much that they could not be lowered into the water.

The aftermath of the tragedy - which follows an explosion on a company tanker earlier this year in which six people died - is shrouded in mystery, with different sides trading accusations of incompetence.

The day after Merkury-2 sunk, around 200 people - mainly relatives of those who had been lost at sea - gathered outside Kaspar's office and angrily protested that no one from the company was receiving them or informing them about how the rescue effort was going. They also complained that the ship had been dangerous.

"The captain, my father, crewmembers and even trainees on board the ship complained more than once to the management of Kaspar that these ships were not designed to carry combustive-lubricating materials," complained Anvar Verdikhanov, the son of the senior assistant to the captain of the ship.

Verdikhanov protested that the ship was working on only one diesel engine, when it ought to have operated with three. "We don't want compensation, we are only demanding to be told the truth," he said.

Bashirov defended his company against the accusations, saying that the ship had been travelling at a speed of ten knots an hour, using both engines. "There's no way you should blame the crew of Merkury-2 and its captain," he said. "He is an extremely experienced captain, who had worked on ships for 27 years. The only reason for the loss of the ship was bad weather conditions."

Bashirov added that the ship itself was in good condition, had undergone a complete repair job in June 1998 and was regularly inspected by the company Russian Shipping Register in Azerbaijan.

Other lines of enquiry have concentrated on the oil cargo the ship was carrying. According to Dmitry Shestakov, chairman of the board of Russian Shipping Register, one possible explanation for the loss of the ship was that oil had spilled out of a container in the hull of the vessel during the storm and ignited. Some witnesses have said that they saw a fire on board the ship.

A state commission set up to investigate the tragedy, headed by Prime Minister Artur Rasizade, has established that there were 16 oil-tanks on board and one freight car. So far, however, the owner of the oil cargo has not been named.

The sinking of the ship caused an oil slick eight km wide and 15 km long, which Azerbaijan's environment ministry says has now been dramatically reduced in size. Environment minister Hussein Bagirov said that most of the crude oil had not spilled out of their containers.

The impact of the tragedy has been exacerbated by the fact that none of Kaspar's ships or crew are insured, despite Azerbaijani law stipulating that they should be.

Technical experts have concluded that it will be too expensive to raise the Merkury-2 from the sea bottom and so it seems likely that many secrets will remain down there with it.

Zarema Velikhanova is a journalist with Zerkalo newspaper in Baku.