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Ageing Greek ferries banned from sailing

The Greek government has suspended the licences of 65 ageing Greek passenger ferries and cruise ships

The Greek government has suspended the licences of 65 ageing Greek passenger ferries and cruise ships, as the death toll from the Express Samina<.> shipwreck rose to 76 with the discovery of two more bodies by divers. The list includes ferries that service Greece`s busiest routes and is set to shake up the local coastal shipping industry.

Merchant Marine Minister Christos Papoutsis chaired talks to review licences for ships more than 27 years of age. No exceptions will be made… Unless all the (safety) documents are submitted, the ships will be prevented from sailing, he said.

The move follows intense criticism of the government over Greece`s passenger fleet, the oldest in the European Union, and failure to save Samina passengers who were stranded less than two miles from the popular Cycladic resort island of Paros. The ship sank on Tuesday night after hitting a well-marked islet off Paros.

The ban, effective from midnight last night, gives ferry operators 20 days to implement appropriate safety measures.

In a telephone interview with Alpha`s evening newscast, Papoutsis denied that the measure was taken in reaction to the Express Samina tragedy. He stressed that passenger shipping companies had been warned two years ago, and received fresh warnings as recently as September 1.

We must not disparage Greek shipping, said Papoutsis. These ships are not being withdrawn. Shipping regulations are divided into five categories, depending on the length of a trip. They are safe ships, but they must comply with the regulations [of their respective category].

On Friday the European Commission called on Greece to provide details of the Express Samina sinking within a month. In a letter from Francois Lamoureux, the EU general secretary for transport, the Commission asked that Greek authorities observe all EU maritime regulations.

Greece`s ferries are exempt from EU regulations which require the withdrawal of ferries after 27 years of service. In this country, ships may operate for 35 years, on condition that stringent safety checks are regularly carried out.

We have asked Greek authorities to provide answers within one month, EU Commission spokesman Gilles Gantelet said in Brussels yesterday.

The merchant marine ministry said five people are now officially listed missing – four Greeks and one Albanian. But confusion over the number of passengers aboard the ferry has brought strong criticism against the government and the ship`s owner, Minoan Flying Dolphins.

Doesn`t anyone have the decency to resign? asked conservative opposition leader Costas Karamanlis.

The ferry`s captain Vassilis Yiannakis, his first officer and two other crew members – who have been charged with reckless manslaughter – are scheduled to testify today before an investigating magistrate on the nearby island of Syros.

Authorities said the two bodies discovered inside the wreck yesterday were identified as the ferry`s purser, Yiannis Margonis, and another Greek man, George Hatzis. Divers were probing the 103.5-metre-long ferry for a second day, and still have much of the vessel to search. Eight bodies were found inside the ship on Friday, all wearing life jackets.

Measures were also being taken to prevent leakage of the 162 tons of fuel and lubricants on the vessel, which is located at a depth of 40 metres.

Paros islanders buried their dead and held services at sea yesterday, with Orthodox priests standing on fishing boats and chanting Byzantine hymns, while children threw wreaths into the Aegean.

More than 10 million people travel on many of the ageing ferry boats around Greece every year. The ministry`s general secretary George Halvatzoglou yesterday said Greece had the highest age limit on passenger ferries within the EU.

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