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Enviroment: Slovene Swims Danube To Raise Pollution Awareness

The Danube River starts out as a clear Black Forest stream in a peaceful southwest corner of Germany, near Switzerland and France. It wends eastward and southward through ever more turbulent political territories until it empties -- soured by quarrels, bloodshed, and pollution -- in the Black Sea off Romania. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill speaks with a Slovenian athlete who is swimming the entire length of the Danube to draw attention to its polluted plight.

Prague, 18 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Slovene Martin Strel marched resolutely to the shore of the Danube River in front of the Hungarian parliament building in Budapest this morning and slipped into the river's 16-degree waters.

With arms flashing in a powerful crawl, he disappeared downstream -- due south at this point -- toward the Yugoslav-Croatian border.

It's just one more day of an estimated 60 days for marathon swimmer Strel. On 25 June he began his journey at the Danube's source in Donauschingen, Germany. He expects to end it 2,860 kms later next month at the river's end in Sulina, Romania.

Strel told our correspondent in a telephone interview from Budapest that he has undertaken this adventure to draw attention to the growing pollution of the river.

"I am swimming for peace, friendship and clean waters, and I am the ambassador of the World Wildlife Fund."

Perhaps fittingly, Strel comes from a southern Slovenian town, Mokronog, whose name comes from a folk tale about the local people having wet feet. An international athlete, he has competed in world championships and in special events. He won a 76-swimmer race across China's immense Yangtze River in 1993, he swam the English Channel in 1997, and he crossed the 78 km from Africa to Europe that same year --the first swimmer to complete the trial after seven others failed.

But his Danube marathon is the most politically charged. The Danube serves as a border marker for much of its length: between Austria and Slovakia, Slovakia and Hungary, Croatia and Yugoslavia, Yugoslavia and Romania, Romania and Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine, and Romania and Ukraine.

Leaving Budapest today, Strel now has before him some of the most troubled parts of the river. There are blockages where NATO bombers blasted the stones and cement of destroyed bridges into Yugoslavia's shipping channels last year during the war over Kosovo. There are stretches where toxic waste from gold mines flowed into the river from tributaries in Romania earlier this year.

Up to now, Strel says, his serpentine passage has propelled him through drinkable waters and friendly people.

"I hope the bridges will rebuild somehow and that the international community will finance that, and within several years all will be as it used to be. As for me, sport is just sport. The Danube connects ten countries, seven or eight different languages. Every day I'm in a different country and everywhere I'm having a beautiful reception."

Reviving and protecting the Danube, he says, demands a kind of trust and cooperation that its bordering countries have never put together for any other endeavor and so, if his exertions contribute to a even droplet of change, he'll have swum to another victory.