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Jordan Protests U.S. Move to Blockade Port at Aqaba

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Jordanian government Sunday protested a U.S. move to blockade the country’s lone sea outlet at Aqaba, a day after American warships and helicopters turned back a vessel from Sudan heading for that port.

The interception of the 12,000-ton Cypriot ferry Dongola marked the first time in the Middle East crisis that the U.S. Navy had interfered with a vessel not heading directly to Iraq. It was also the first time that a non-Iraqi registered ship was targeted by the blockade being enforced by the United States and Britain.

A statement issued by the official Sudan news agency called the interception a “dangerous precedent.”

Despite a U.N.-sanctioned trade embargo, Jordan has permitted goods unloaded at Aqaba to be trucked to Iraq, and over the weekend an Iraqi vessel discharged cargo at the port after slipping through the American blockade. The blockade is designed to enforce the embargo voted by the U.N. Security Council.

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Jordanian officials insisted that the Dongola carried no cargo destined for Iraq. There was some confusion about whether the Dongola carried any goods at all. A port official at Aqaba said that it carried automobiles; Sudanese officials said it carried scrap iron. Jordanian government television referred to the vessel only as a ferry.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Kassem summoned Roger Harrison, the new American ambassador to Jordan, to lodge a complaint.

“Jordan expressed its concern over the move because the cargo was not going to Iraq and was also on a humanitarian mission to move Sudanese nationals to Sudan,” a high government official said.

Kassem also told Harrison that the U.S. blockade “foils Jordan’s efforts to provide human assistance to foreigners leaving Iraq and Kuwait.”

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Government television reported that Harrison expressed “regrets” over the incident. U.S. Embassy officials here declined to comment on the report.

An official statement from Sudan said the Dongola “was intercepted by an American warship, and it was asked to sail back immediately. American helicopters flew over the ship and warned it to return. The ship turned back and is now 110 miles out of the Gulf of Aqaba.”

The Gulf of Aqaba is a finger from the Red Sea leading to Aqaba, located at the southern tip of Jordan.

The Sudanese report added that U.S. authorities have agreed to let the ship proceed back toward Aqaba only if it submits to inspection by the Navy.

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The Sudanese government said it had protested the interception through its ambassador in Washington.

Despite Sudan’s involvement, Jordan is where much of the attention is directed. Besides refusing to enforce the trade embargo against Iraq, Jordan has opposed the sending of American troops to Saudi Arabia to protect it from Iraq. Jordan’s leader, King Hussein, described the massing of U.S. soldiers as an effort to colonize Arab land. Although his government insists that Jordan wants only to ship food and medicine to Iraq, trucks with a variety of other goods, including cars, cotton and building materials, have been steadily streaming across the land frontier between the two countries at Ruweished.

A high Jordanian official said that a team of legal experts will meet with U.N. officials today to discuss what Jordan can rightfully send to Iraq. Jordan has hinted that it wants an exemption from the embargo because of its heavy dependence on Iraqi oil. Officials have also hinted that Jordan needs compensation for any economic losses caused by the embargo.

Politically, Jordan has aligned itself with Iraq on that country’s invasion of Kuwait, although it has criticized the annexation of the oil state.

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King Hussein, who is not related to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, visited President Bush last week in hopes of winning sympathy for Jordan’s position. By all accounts, he failed, and Jordanians are speaking gloomily of a war breaking out in which Jordan may be a battlefield.

On Sunday, King Hussein visited military bases and police headquarters dressed in a military beret and army uniform, accenting his role as chief of the armed forces.

Jordan is also beset with a vast spillover of refugees fleeing Iraq and Kuwait. Most such refugees have been Arab workers.

An official from India visiting Baghdad said that he was assured that 140,000 Indians living in Kuwait will be free to leave. At last count, there were about 1 million Egyptians living in Iraq. Most of the refugees crossing the border into Jordan have been Egyptians.

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The refugees are coming across at the rate of 17,000 a day. Most of them head for Aqaba to catch ferries for either Egypt or Sudan. Five ships are making regular crossings between Aqaba and the Sinai port of Nuweiba. Sudanese ships are coming less regularly.

Jordan is debating whether to ask Iraq to limit the number of refugees it permits to cross the border each day. Such a decision would be controversial because of the danger of war. Most of the refugees are crossing at Ruweished, but thousands are also escaping from Kuwait through northern Saudi Arabia. The arduous journey across the desert has taken several lives, refugees at the Saudi frontier have told reporters.

“We get 10,000 Egyptians a day, and we cannot absorb them,” said Col. Mohammed el Shamaileh, director of immigration at Ruweished.

Hearing the news that Jordan might limit the flow of Egyptians, officials at Egypt’s embassy in Amman responded abruptly, “They cannot do that.”

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