Turkey to pressure Georgia to release tanker captain

Wed Sep 2, 2009 3:06pm IST

* Minister to request captain's release, says govt source

* Turkey says Georgia violated maritime law

By Zerin Elci

CAIRO, Sept 2 (Reuters) - Ankara will pressure Tbilisi to overturn a Georgian court decision to imprison a Turkish tanker captain for trying to deliver fuel to rebel Abkhazia, violating an economic blockade, a government source said on Wednesday.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is expected to visit Tbilisi to ask Georgia to overturn the decision to jail the captain for 24 years after his ship was seized in the Black Sea by the Georgian Coast Guard.

Georgian authorities say the ship was seized in Georgian waters, but the tanker operator says the vessel was seized in international waters at gunpoint. A Russian coast guard official was quoted on Tuesday calling the seizure piracy.

"We think the Georgians violated international maritime law regarding both the letter and the spirit of the law," said Foreign Minister spokesman Burak Ozugergin.

"Davutoglu has a planned trip to Georgia in the coming days (to ask for the court decision to be overturned)," said a government official speaking on condition of anonymity. Davutoglu was on a Middle East tour in Egypt on Wednesday. No date was given for a trip to Georgia.

Georgia banned all economic and commercial activity with its two breakaway regions after last year's five-day war with Russia, when Moscow repelled a Georgian assault on rebel South Ossetia.

Under Georgian law, foreigners risk prosecution if they enter Abkhazia or another breakaway region, South Ossetia, without permission from Tbilisi.

But Georgian authorities made no announcement of their intention to seize the ship, the general manager of tanker operator Densa said, which is illegal in international waters under maritime law.

Some Abkhaz officials say the blockade is simply pushing Abkhazia closer to Russia, which already controls Abkhazia's borders and patrols its coastline. Russia considers itself the security guarantor of the disputed territory.

Shunned by the West, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are overwhelmingly dependent on Russia for aid and investment. Abkhazia hopes to re-position itself as a tourist destination, having once been the playground of the Soviet elite. (Writing by Thomas Grove; Editing by Dominic Evans)

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