Turkish Authorities Assess Damages from Airport Fire

May 31, 2006

[AP] A huge fire that turned the giant cargo terminal of Istanbul’s main airport into a wreckage of twisted metal and charred walls may have caused tens of millions of dollars (euros) in damage, according to newspaper reports Thursday.

Shooting flames mixed with black smoke destroyed a cargo building that had handled around 600,000 tons of cargo last year. Police increased security at Ataturk International Airport as authorities and companies began to assess the damage and tried to determine what caused the fire.

There was no official damage estimate, but the daily Zaman reported that it could be around US$50 million (€39 million), citing textile producers and aviation officials.

A hardline Kurdish militant group had claimed responsibility for the fire, but Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbas said the airport was a secure area and such claims were unlikely to be true.

The blaze threatened nearby passenger terminals – the main gateway to Turkey, which annually hosts some 20 million people, mostly tourists on their way to sunny resorts with sandy beaches.

But only three people suffered from smoke inhalation at the cargo area and no one was killed, authorities said.

“Disaster narrowly missed,” daily Milliyet said, adding that the distance between the cargo building and passenger terminals – approximately one kilometer (mile) – prevented a disaster.

The blaze could be seen from 10 kilometers (6 miles) away and forced the closure of one of the airport’s runways, causing flight delays on Wednesday. The flights had returned to normal Thursday and passengers were able to fly without delays.

The threat of a possible leak of radiation from medical radioactive material stored in the building led experts wearing protective clothes to check the site with Geiger counters. The experts said the level of radiation was harmless but reports said they could not enter all parts of the building because of high heat.

Firefighters were still trying cool it, using pressurized water and foam as a white smoke billowed into the blue sky. Planes carrying water had made more than 140 sorties over the smoldering wreck on Wednesday.

A smell of burning plastic filled the air while cargo workers explained that textile products were covered with large plastic sheets. Police officers guarding the site were wearing masks to avoid smoke inhalation, but there was a lack of masks for all workers at the site.

The financial damage was thought to be just a trickle of Turkey’s gross national product of about US$361 billion (€283 billion), but the fire severely damaged one of Turkey’s busiest air cargo entry points, forcing authorities to shift cargo operations to two other airports – both some 90 kilometers (55 miles) away.

Customs brokers and company officials packed the working customs office at Turkish Airlines in a desperate effort to clear undamaged goods, but the fire had also damaged the computer system.

“Everything is stuck. No one can take cargo here,” said Hasan Okten, sales manager of Brink’s Co., an armored car transportation and security service provider. “We’re waiting to hear whether they’re going to open customs.”

The fire destroyed cargo including textile products worth around US$10 million (€8 million) as well as gold, silver and electronic equipment shipments, Zaman newspaper quoting textile producers said.

“We don’t know the dimensions of the damage but there were the goods of hundreds of firms,” daily Zaman newspaper quoted Ayhan Karahan, chairman of a local textile producers association in Istanbul.

Karahan said most of the textile exports were destined for Russia or Arab countries. The fire further troubled the country’s textile sector which is facing an increasing competition from China, India, Pakistan and Vietnam in export markets.

The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons Organization, a hardline group with ties to the main Kurdish guerrilla group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, said it started the blaze, according to a post on its Web site.

The group said the attack was revenge for Turkey’s policies against the Kurds and threatened, “to those who will not leave our people to an honorable life: when you insist on your policies we will turn your life into hell.”

The Falcons claimed a string of bombings in Istanbul this year, vowing to target tourism and economic targets. Kurdish guerrillas have been fighting for autonomy in Turkey since 1984, in a fight that has left more than 37,000 dead. The militant group appears to be a radical offshoot of the PKK, which does most of its fighting in the country’s Kurdish-majority southeast.

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