ISTANBUL/TBILISI, Aug 21 (Reuters) - The Turkish operator of a tanker that was seized by Georgian authorities for delivering fuel to breakaway Abkhazia said on Friday he had given up the idea of sending any further supplies to the Black Sea territory.
Georgia has passed legislation that forbids commercial traffic heading to Abkhazia in an attempt to isolate the territory, which was recognised by Moscow as independent after a five-day war between Georgia and Russia last August.
Abkhazia has threatened a “proportionate response” to the Georgian blockade, which it says is aimed at suffocating it. The operator’s statements suggested Tbilisi’s actions may be working.
“The risks are too high now. We take cargo from one place to another, legally, and we don’t want to deal with illegal actions such as these,” said Huseyin San, general manager of the tanker operator Densa, whose company had been making regular trips to the Abkhaz port of Sukhumi to deliver fuel.
Georgia says the tanker was picked up in Georgian territorial waters, but San said Georgia had intercepted it in international waters off Turkey before taking it to the Georgian port of Poti.
San said the Georgian authorities had made no announcement of their intention before the seizure, which meant they might have breached the ship’s right to pass freely through international waters.
Under Georgian law, foreigners risk prosecution if they enter Abkhazia or another breakaway region, South Ossetia, without permission from Tbilisi.
Some Abkhaz officials say the policy is simply pushing Abkhazia closer to Russia, which already controls Abkhazia’s borders and patrols its coastline.
Abkhaz Economy Minister Kristina Ozgan said on Thursday that Abkhazia would import 500 tonnes of diesel from Russia to compensate for the tanker’s detention.
Almost all investment in Abkhazia comes from immediate neighbour Russia, which recognised the regions on its southern border as independent states after crushing a Georgian assault on South Ossetia last August.
Abkhazia depends mainly on Russian land deliveries of raw materials. Ninety-seven percent of food products are imported overland from Russia.
Moscow, usually vociferous in its support of Abkhazia against Georgian actions, has so far remained silent on the ship seizure.
Georgia said on Friday that the fate of the ship, its cargo and crew were in the hands of the courts. Local media reports have suggested the cargo could be confiscated and auctioned.
San says he will open an international court case citing the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea if authorities try to unload the ship and sell its $3-4 million worth of petrol and diesel.
San, who said he had spoken with the captain, currently being held with a crew of 13 Turks and 4 Azeris in Batumi, said everyone who was on board the ship was well.
The captain faces up to 24 years in prison if found guilty of smuggling and violating the Georgian ban on unauthorised economic activity.
On Thursday, the Georgian coastguard said it had detained another vessel carrying scrap metal from Abkhazia. It was operating under a Cambodian flag with a Syrian crew, and the coastguard said it was the fourth such seizure this year.
A lush strip of sub-tropical territory on the Black Sea, Abkhazia was once the playground of the Soviet elite, and hopes to position itself again as a popular tourist destination. (Additional reporting by Jonathan Saul in London)