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French Version

Beirut's new container terminal unloads 1st ship, 4 years behind schedule (Daily Star)

Largest ever vessel unloads cargo in trial run
Dispute between the port and the existing operators is on the verge of being resolved

After years of controversy and political deadlock, Beirut's vacant multi-million dollar container terminal finally came to life Thursday, its gantry cranes swinging into action for the first time to unload the largest freighter to ever dock here.

Possibly also the greatest publicity stunt in the country's history, the ship's arrival symbolizes both a new era of robust activity and the brushing over of more than a decade of uncertainty at the port, which has been managed by gentleman's agreements since the end of the civil war.

"This is the first time this beautiful equipment is being operated," said George Kurban, local manager for French shipping firm CMA CGM, as he welcomed journalists aboard the ship Energy, carrying an unprecedented 2,200 TEU (20-foot equivalent unit) containers.

"Now that we are ready today, let's not talk about the past. Let's talk about the future, because today we are opening a new page in the history of the Port of Beirut and in the Lebanese economy," he added.

Hailing from China, Energy is also the first of seven liners to call directly on Beirut from Asia under CMA CGM's new strategy to boost its business in the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea.

"It is a decision to offer a specific to this part of the world," said Henry Delannoy, senior vice president of sales and marketing for CMA CGM. Asian shipments to Beirut have reached 60,000 TEU this year, up approximately 20 percent from 2003, he said.

"The shipping industry is flourishing, especially with the phenomenal increase of volume from China which has now become well known as the workshop of the world."

Marseille-based CMA is owned by Lebanese national Jacques Saade and promises to deliver shipments from Shanghai to Beirut in a record 19 days. Far outnumbering previous loads, Energy could only be serviced by the port's $27 million gantry cranes, which have stood idle since their March delivery.

As containers were briskly hoisted onshore, there appeared to be an imminent resolution to the dispute between port authorities and the band of existing operators who have been collecting some 65 percent on handling costs since hastily assuming operations in 1990.

"It is on the way to being resolved," said port director Hassan Koraytem, also on board. But he did not say how much was being demanded by previous operators and described Thursday's activities as a mere "test," while offering no date for regular usage.

After a series of unsuccessful handovers, seven companies are expected to bid to operate the container terminal, completed at a cost $150 million in 2000.

Previous operators could receive $12 to $15 million to relinquish their grip on port activity and make way for new operators according to Elie Zakhour, president of the International chamber of shipping.

"They will reach a final solution soon," he said, claiming port activity increased 25 percent in the first five months of the year: "It's a good sign at a good time."

Owner of the ship, Mons Bolin, a Swedish national, was also optimistic on his first visit to Beirut. "I was especially impressed by the security."

Beirut 28-06-2004
The Daily Star

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