Crew of hapless fun palace plucked from Aegean

 

Greek coastguard helicopters on Sunday lifted to safety the seven crew of a former Soviet aircraft carrier sold to the Chinese as a floating fun palace after gale force winds tore the vessel from its tugboats.

The rescue was the latest chapter in a bizarre saga involving the 55,000-tonne Varyag, which was on its way from the Black Sea to China following a 15-month diplomatic tussle between Beijing and Ankara.

Ferocious winds ripped the ropes connecting the engine-less, 307-metre (1,000-foot) hulk to three tugboats guiding it through the Aegean Sea.

The Varyag drifted freely for some 12 hours towards the island of Evia.

"One tugboat managed to tie its ropes to the vessel and is now partly controlling it, sending it away from the island," the spokeswoman said.

But she said efforts of the other two tugboats were being severely hampered by gale-force winds blowing in the Aegean in the past two days.

Taming the Varyag will be the latest twist in the life of the hapless vessel, a costly Soviet legacy to Ukraine.

Ukraine, glad to be rid of the white elephant, sold it for 20 million to a Chinese firm aiming to turn it into a floating casino and entertainment palace.

But it has taken since spring last year just to get it from Ukrainian shipyards into the Mediterranean.

The seafaring monster was forced to turn in circles around the mouth of the Bosphorus for 15 months lashed to a Dutch tugboat while Beijing bargained with a reluctant Turkey to let it cross the straits.

Ankara had insisted the vessel would pose too great a danger to bridges linking Europe and Asia and to Istanbul but gave the final go-ahead on Thursday.

Diplomatic sources said the Turkish-Chinese deal included a tourism agreement and trade concessions by Beijing.