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Yugoslavia: Danube River Trade Hurt By Conflict

Prague, 13 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Among the victims of the conflict in Yugoslavia are the hundreds of river boats which carry freight up and down the Danube from western Europe to the Black Sea.

Shipping authorities at the Hungarian Transport Ministry say that more than 200 convoys of river freighters and their trailing barges are trapped in mid-journey by the NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia and are now stranded in ports across the region. One reason is that the Danube is blocked near the Yugoslav port of Novi Sad by two bridges hit by NATO bombs.

Scores of other German, Hungarian, Romanian, and Bulgarian shippers cancelled their plans because of the bombing and left their vessels in ports along the Danube without setting out. As one example, the German trading company Lasselsberger Holdings has several convoys laden with cement stranded in Izmail, Ukraine near the Black Sea.

The financial losses from the interruption in trade are expected to be heavy. Last week Ukrainian Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk estimated his country's losses at $300,000 a day. Most experts consider his figures to be exaggerated but they agree the losses will be high.

NATO officials have acknowledged that Danube transport has been interrupted, but say the region will eventually benefit economically if the alliance succeeds in getting Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to change his ways. NATO spokesman Jamie Shea was asked about Danube transport last week:

"If we could achieve a situation of peace in the region and we could look toward the integration of Yugoslavia into the European mainstream and if the sanctions could be lifted, I think there will be much more business for Ukrainian shippers and everyone else in the long run."

The Danube is a major transportation link for most of its 3,000 km route from southern Germany to the Black Sea. About 400 kms flow through Yugoslavia. These 400 kms are the key connection for those trading between eastern and western Europe. Any disturbance which cuts traffic through Yugoslavia has an immediate effect on trade figures.

A few examples tell the story. The Hungarian authorities say 62 river convoys are held up in the Hungarian port of Mohacs, on the border with Yugoslavia. Most are carrying wheat and other agricultural products for Bulgaria and Romania. Some are headed for Ukraine.

On the other side of Yugoslavia, Romanian freighters laden with cement for an Austrian construction firm are staying in port because there is no point in leaving. Nearby is another freighter laden with sunflower seeds to be turned into cooking oil. It too is supposed to be headed for Austria. Others are carrying oil and iron ore.

In the German river port of Regensburg, the shipping manager for seven separate companies, Hans Frank, told German radio that 60 of his 155 freighters are stopped. They are carrying steel, wheat, iron ore, coal, and wood. Thirty of the convoys are trapped on the Hungarian side of the broken bridges at Novi Sad. The other 30 are on the other side of the bridges headed for the Black Sea. But they are not moving while the daily air attacks continue. A spokesman at the Hungarian transport ministry told RFE/RL: "some of the NATO targets are right on the river, including the oil refinery at Pancevo, just across the Danube from Belgrade. The refinery has been attacked several times. Few captains will risk taking their ship along that stretch of river while the bombing continues."

In Germany, captain Kurt Schelter brought his motorship 'Erna' safely home to Nuremburg last week after an adventurous journey which included being held for a week by the Yugoslav authorities in the river port of Bezdan, near the Hungarian border. Schelter told German reporters that twice during the week they were held, NATO bombers flew over them to attack the military airfield at Sombor, near the river.

Schelter's convoy was carrying a cargo of Yugoslav-made plastic sheets destined for a German factory which turns them into kitchen bowls and handles for shaving razors.

Traffic along the Danube has grown since Germany built a water link between the Danube and the Rhine river about 20 years ago. As one example, Gustav Poschalkote, chairman of the Austrian company Express International in Vienna, says his firm now sends about 2,000 ships a year down the river. Some make short trips to Hungarian or Bulgarian ports. Others go all the way down to the Black Sea.

The huge Austrian steel manufacturer, Voest-Alpin Stahl, based on the Danube at Linz, gets much of its coal and iron ore from Central Europe using hundreds of river convoys.

Among the heaviest users of the Danube are Romania and Bulgaria. Romania ships mostly oil and corn. Bulgaria has developed a 'Roll-on Roll-off' business in which loaded trucks are put on to river ferries, carried to Austria or Germany and then driven to their destinations.

The German company Donau-Lloyd-Mat, based in Passau on the German-Austrian border, also has a 'Roll-on Roll-off' business between Germany and Bulgaria. Its business manager, Boyan Stoyanov, said that last year the company's four vessels carried about 4,000 trucks and around 12,000 cars as well as tractors and farm machinery. It had expectations of equally heavy trade this year. But because of the bombed bridges at Novi Sad and other dangers, its business has come to a standstill. Three of the company's freighters are tied up in Passau and the other in Bulgaria.

Some Danube shippers fear the river trade may be permanently damaged by the closure of the river. It is the second time it has happened since 1992 -- river traffic also came to a virtual stop during the Bosnian war.

Hans Frank, the shipping manager for 155 freighters, told German radio he is now trying to find other means of transport for the steel, wheat, coal and iron ore on his 60 ships trapped along different parts of the Danube. He said he will probably have to turn to trucks and railway transport, both of which are considerably more expensive than river transport. Frank said that in the long run the situation could persuade some transport companies to stay with road and rail transport and not use the river.