Mon, Oct 24, 2016 - Page 4 News List

FEATURE: Turkish spotters track Russian vessels

AFP, ISTANBUL, Turkey

Turkish ship spotter Yoruk Isik takes pictures of the Russian warship Nikolai Filchenkov 152 as it passes through the Bosphorus Strait on Tuesday.

Photo: AFP

Minutes after fishermen tip him off that a ship is about to pass through Istanbul’s Bosphorus, Yoruk Isik drops what he is doing and rushes to his favorite vantage point, camera in hand.

The vessel is not one of the dozens of cargo boats that pass through the strait between Europe and Asia every day. It is a Russian warship, in this case the landing ship Nikolai Filchenkov.

It makes stately progress through the strait towards the Sea of Marmara on a voyage that will eventually take it into the Mediterranean towards Tartus, Russia’s naval base in Syria.

Isik clicks the shutter, capturing Russian sailors at the rails taking in the view. The Russians can be seen returning the favor, keeping a close eye on the shoreside observers.

Several Russian warships pass in both directions through the Bosphorus every week, transporting cargo for Moscow’s military campaign in Syria, in a massive logistical effort known as the “Syrian Express.”

Each time they come, a group of amateur but well-informed and hugely dedicated Turkish ship spotters are there to photograph them and share their work on social media where their following has shot up.

Their work rose to prominence in December last year when they spotted a Russian soldier aboard the Tsezar Kunikov warship with a man-portable air-defense system (MANPAD) shoulder-launched missile aimed at the shore, in a gesture slammed as “provocation” by Ankara.

The pictures made headlines in Turkish media at a time of peak tensions between Russia and Turkey following the downing of one of Moscow’s warplanes on the Syrian border just 10 days earlier.

Standing by the old Ottoman fortress of Rumeli Hisari on the European shore of the Bosphorus where the strait is at its narrowest, Isik has been waiting for this particular Russian warship for several days.

Through his contacts and social media, he knows the vessel left Russia’s Sevastopol base in Crimea — the Ukrainian Peninsula annexed by Moscow in 2014 — several days before.

Isik said he can estimate the ship’s arrival time soon after it leaves its base, but adds that it might change depending on weather conditions or its tonnage.

“From Sevastopol to Istanbul, it is approximately 300 nautical miles [555.6km]. But the vessel may not always pass through the congested Bosphorus strait directly,” he said.

As the nose of the vessel emerges, he cracks a big smile, reminiscent of a small child opening a Christmas gift.

“Look, someone on the ship is saying hello to me,” he said, pointing out armed Russian soldiers on board through the camera lens.

Like a nautical dictionary, Isik knows all of the technical specifications of this Tapir class tank-carrying landing ship — when it was built, where it was used, how many military tanks it can carry.

An international relations specialist by profession, Isik is a passionate ship spotter, and only occasionally earns small amounts from the copyright of the pictures he takes.

While it struck many outsiders as astonishing that Russian warships were passing unchallenged through the Bosphorus at the height of the crisis between Turkey and Russia, it is a right enshrined in the 1936 Montreux Convention.

This gives the warships of Moscow — and other Black Sea littoral states — the right to pass so long as they are not at war with Turkey.

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