TONGA: Closed for Security Concerns
Tonga's 171 islands are located in the South Pacific, between
Australia and Fiji, and ruled by King Taufa'ahua Tupou IV. Tonga
has sold passports for as much as US$60,000, and it seriously
considered accepting U.S. toxic waste. In 2000, despite the
small island nation's inability to monitor ships around the
world -- Tonga's navy has only three coast guard vessels and
one royal yacht -- Tonga opened a ship registry, headquartered
in Piraeus, Greece. More than 180 ships signed up under the
Tongan flag before the registry closed in 2002.
According to press reports, U.S. naval intelligence officials
believed that several Tongan ships were part of Osama bin Laden's
"navy." Suspicion heightened in January 2002 when Israeli commandos
boarded a Tongan-flagged ship called the Karine A and
found 50 tons of weapons on board. Two more Tongan vessels,
the Sara and the Twillinger, were caught later
that year with illegal Pakistani immigrants on board carrying
large quantities of cash, maps and false passports. Reports
claimed U.S. officials suspected that the men, the Sara
and the Twillinger were linked to al Qaeda, though the
specific nature of the connection was never revealed. Following
the Twillinger incident, Tonga's registry suspended operation
indefinitely, and soon the Tongan cabinet announced that the
registry was officially closed, citing "diplomatic, financial,
business and legal considerations," including "international
terrorism and an increase in people smuggling." Ships already
registered under the Tongan flag were given 12 months to make
"alternative arrangements." Efforts by FRONTLINE/World
to reach a Tongan official for comment on the brief history
of the Tonga International Registry of Ships were unsuccessful.
PERKS OF THE FLAG
The Tongan registry appeared willing to accept almost any
ship, regardless of age, owners or activity. The average age
of ships in the Tongan fleet jumped from 23 to 31 years in the
two years it operated.
WHAT THE REGULATORS SAY
Europe's most respected ship regulation agencies blacklisted
Tonga in 2001 and gave it a "high risk" rating, thereby indicating
that ships flying the Tongan flag were likely to be violating
international shipping safety, labor or environmental regulations.
Of 30 Tongan ships inspected in 2001 by port authorities in
Europe and North America, 10 were considered to be unfit to
return to sea until problems found on board were rectified.
A MEMBER OF THE FLEET: The Sara
In August 2002, Italian marine authorities received an SOS
from the captain of the Sara, who claimed 15 men brought
aboard in Casablanca were threatening him and his crew. According
to press reports printed at the time, the captain stated that
he had been "forced" to take the men aboard by the ship's owners,
a company called Nova, which, according to U.S. and Italian
intelligence sources, had a long history of smuggling illegal
immigrants. U.S. officials suspected that both the Sara and
the men discovered on board were linked to al Qaeda. Other ships
owned by Nova include the Twillinger and the Tara,
both of which were flagged in Tonga and suspected of being part
of the al Qaeda navy.
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Tonga: Closed for Security Concerns
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