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One Killed As Warship Attacks Passenger Ferry

February 24, 1990

LARNACA, Cyprus (AP) _ A Syrian gunboat apparently looking for arms shipments to Lebanon shelled a passenger ferry traveling from Cyprus to Lebanon on Saturday, killing one civilian and injuring 18, crew members and military officials said.

The dead man was identified as a 26-year-old Lebanese who had just obtained an emigration vist to Canada and was headed home to pick up his pregnant wife.

Crew members said the attackers menaced the Baroness M before pumping 20 shells into it as it headed for the Lebanese port of Jounieh.

The ship was flying a Syrian flag and was apparently on guard against weapons shipments to Lebanon, where the Christian army leader opposes the Syrian-backed government and the presence of 40,000 Syrian soldiers deployed to quell civil war fighting.

Military sources on Cyprus, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they also believed the boat that attacked was Syrian.

Greek Capt. George Samlotakis said the gunboat accosted the ferry three times, first at about 4:30 a.m. when it was 19 miles west of Jounieh.

″They asked us who was on board and where we were going,″ said Egyptian mechanic Mohammed Mohammed al-Murshidi, 27. He said he talked with them because most of the ferry crew spoke on Greek or English, while those on the gunboat spoke Arabic.

Samlotakis said he then turned the ferry back to Cyprus and about 30 minutes later the gunboat approached at great speed.

″I immediately prepared to stop and was in the process of doing so when suddenly, and without any warning, the gunboat opened fire against us,″ said the captain.

Salmotakis said 20 shells hit the ship, wrecking his cabin right below the bridge and heavily damaging the bar and cafeteria on the deck below, where many people had taken cover.

″There was terrible confusion and panic on board. There was smoke and dust everywhere and people screaming,″ he said.

″We ran from one side of the boat to the other as the gunboat circled,″ said Rima Suleiman, a receptionist on the boat.

The captain said at dawn, two hours after the first encounter, passengers and crew went to the top deck and waved flags and sheets at the warship to signal that they needed help for the wounded.

Crew member Danny Zarour said at that point, the gunboat took down its flag.

It stayed in the distance for awhile, then approached a third time, the captain said.

″As if nothing had happened he ordered me to open the back gangplank so that he could examine our cargo,″ he said.

The Baroness M, designed to take cars on and off the back ramp, usually travels with an empty hull to Lebanon. Only the passenger baggage is stored in the area for cars.

″We told him we were a Greek ship under the Cyprus flag and he told us go back to our country and don’t try to come to Lebanon again,″ Samlotakis said.

The attack wounded 18 passengers, four critically, said a spokesman for the British Royal Air Force bases on Cyprus. The Royal Air Force has a major base at Akrotiri on the southern coast of the island.

The Royal Air Force evacuated 15 of the wounded by helicopter before the ferry docked at Larnaca at 1 p.m., said the spokesman, who declined to be identified.

The wounded, most suffering cuts and burns in the legs from shrapnel, were rushed to local hospitals for treatment.

The dead man was identified as Nasr Abu Nasr, 26.

″He was hit by shrapnel all over his body,″ said Ms. Suleiman. ″He was sitting facing the bar exactly where a shell hit.″

Nora Kasbari, spokesman for Socomar, agents for the ship, said it carried 64 passengers and 52 crew members when it left Larnaca late Friday for the seven-hour trip to Jounieh, 120 miles east.

The boat is one of two that travels regularly between Lebanon and Cyprus. It is a main escape route for Christians fleeing their embattled enclave in Lebanon, where Christian army forces are battling for control over the Lebanese Forces Christian militia.

The port of Jounieh is controlled by the Lebanese Forces, which also has a share in the ferry operations.

The ferry service and other maritime traffic came under fire repeatedly during six months of fighting in Lebanon in 1989 between the Christian army leader, Gen. Michel Aoun, and the Syrian army and its Moslem militia allies.

Syrian troops were deployed in Lebanon in 1976 under a peacekeeping mandate to quell civil war fighting. Aoun said they violated the mandate by siding with the Moslems in the war and vowed to drive them out.

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