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Posted on Sunday, September 17, 2000 - 03:58 pm:   

Freedom Ship 'will be target for terrorists'
Experts warn of crime wave, security crackdown and danger of hostage-taking on mile-long vessel

Jason Burke, Chief Reporter

Sunday May 28, 2000

It has been billed as a maritime Utopia sailing the seven seas. But security experts are warning that the 40,000 people who are expected to buy homes on the mile-long, 300-yard wide Freedom Ship may find life closer to Blade Runner than The Good Ship Lollipop .

The vessel's very name may prove deeply ironic, for there will be one security man to every 15 residents, homes will be ringed with electronic surveillance equipment, the ship's police will have access to firearms, the captain will have absolute power, and there will be a jail in which to dump miscreants.

A squad of intelligence officers will monitor threats to security, both from inside the ship and externally from pirates and terrorists. The ship will be equipped with 'state-of-the art defensive weapons' to repel attacks and the system of government sounds remarkably similar to that of some of the world's least savoury regimes.

Construction is to start later this summer in Honduras. More than 15,000 labourers will work for 24 hours a day to get the ship built by 2003. Already more than a fifth of the 20,000 residential units, which cost from £80,000 to £5 million, have been sold, with sales averaging £4.7m a week. Many have been sold to clients in Britain and Europe. The US businessmen and engineers behind the project are so confident they are already planning three more Freedom Ships.

'It is a new lifestyle for this new millennium,' said Roger Gooch, marketing director of the Freedom Ship.

The promotional literature for the project paints a magnificent picture of a luxurious tax haven that progresses steadily across the world's oceans, served by a fleet of light aircraft and speed boats. There will be shops, parks, concert halls, schools, homes and even a university on board. A huge duty-free shopping mall will generate significant revenue, it is claimed. The ship is so big - six times larger than any other vessel ever built - that a 100ft wave will hardly affect it, the builders say.

The captain will be in a position to enforce the laws of whichever country's flag under which Gooch and his colleagues decide to sail her. Traditionally, states such as Panama have provided so-called flags of convenience, though Gooch said the ship's management were considering two European Union nations as possibilities.

The ship's private security force of 2,000, led by a former FBI agent, will have access to weapons, both to maintain order within the vessel and to resist external threats. They can expect to be kept busy, according to sociologists, maritime security experts, criminologists and intelligence experts consulted by The Observer last week. 'The ship will have all the problems of any small city, including crime, outbreaks of disorder, juvenile delinquency, neighbourhood disputes, everything,' said Mike Bluestone, a London-based security consultant. 'And the ship will be a prime target for terrorists. It would be perfectly possible to hold the entire vessel to ransom by seizing a few well-chosen hostages.'

Residents will be cosmopolitan, and that may not help social cohesion, says Ivan Horrocks, a security specialist at the Scarman Centre at the University of Leicester. 'When you create an artificial environment involving people with very different ethical, cultural, political and legal customs and values, the potential for tension is very great. It could well be more of a dystopia than a Utopia,' he said.

But others are more sanguine about the Freedom Ship's prospects. One of the major attractions of the vessel, according to Gooch, is its freedom from taxes. Professor Ken Roberts, a sociologist at Liverpool University, believes that if people merely use the ship as a mobile tax haven, then it could function socially. 'People who have an international occupational life might find it attractive, though I do not see people with that kind of money spending all their lives on a ship,' he said.

Others note that residents may be preoccupied with less drastic problems than the threat of piracy. Many of the first units to be sold have gone to Germans, raising the spectre of towels already on deckchairs by the time the rest of Europe's aspirant global voyagers make it to the pool.

Jason Burke

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