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Soviet carrier resumes last voyage

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- A relic of Russia's Soviet-era military might has finally been allowed to continue on its final journey to a new home after a 15-month legal wrangle between Turkey and China.

The engineless hulk of the vast aircraft carrier Varyag has been sold off to China as a floating "fun palace."

The vessel's voyage to China stalled last year at the mouth of the Bosporus since when Beijing has haggled with Turkey for permission for it to pass from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.

Ankara had insisted the Varyag -- bought by a Chinese firm for $20 million -- posed too great a danger to bridges across the channel and historic buildings and homes in Istanbul.

Finally, after a deal was reached, the Varyag got the go-ahead to risk the tight curves and powerful currents of the strait -- the sole passageway between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean -- on Thursday.

In the event, the grey giant passed without incident through the strait into the Sea of Marmara -- though its passage was witnessed by a large crowd as traffic came to a halt.

Normal traffic through the Bosporus resumed by mid-afternoon after the unfinished flattop completed its six-hour passage. A normal oil tanker would make the trip in 1.5 hours.

"It was a successful operation," said Hucum Tulgar, head of Istanbul's shore security and marine rescue service.

Warning sirens whooped and sea traffic in both directions ceased as the 300-metre (1,000-foot) Varyag slid past historic palaces and mosques in a 12-ship convoy of pilots and tugs.

After Turkey refused transit permission, Chinese payments to ITC, the Dutch tugboat company, dried up.

Joop Timmermanns, the head of ITC, saw the passage of the Varyag as the end of a nightmare.

It cost the company $8,000 a day to keep the Varyag circling in the Black Sea while high-level delegations shuttled between Beijing and Ankara.

"It's all over now," Timmermanns, told Reuters. "The Chinese have settled all the money issues.

"The issue now is whether the Varyag goes through the Suez canal or south around the Cape of Good Hope."

Aircraft carriers were a key element in Moscow's plans, launched in the 1970s, for a navy strong enough to project Soviet power across oceans and rival Washington on the high seas.

However, only one carrier of the illustrious Kuznetsov class, Varyag's sister ship, the Admiral Kuznetsov, made it into service before the fall of the Soviet regime in December 1991.

The 55,000-tonne Varyag was to have housed missiles, guns, 2,500 men and 35 warplanes, but the Soviet Union abruptly collapsed when it was only 80 percent built.

For years it had lain at the Ukraine naval yard known in Soviet times as Nikolayev and now by its Ukrainian name Mykolayiv.

The Admiral Kuznetsov passed to Russia but attempts to finance completion of the Varyag failed.

Now a Chinese company -- Agencia Turistica e Diversoes Chong Lot Limitada -- plans to convert it into a pleasure palace of casinos, restaurants, hotel rooms and other entertainments, utilising its 160 meters (525 feet) long and 30 meters (100 feet) wide main hangar and 300 metre (1,000 foot) flight deck.


• World Aircraft Carriers
• Soviet Military

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