Safety of navigation

The international political community must take firm steps to ensure the principle of the sanctity - and freedom - of the world's waterways. The waterways - and that includes such important shipping lanes as the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf - are the vital sea corridors that link the world's nations and commerce. Allow those sea lanes to be closed off by terrorist groups or other belligerents and the world's economic growth could not help being adversely affected. The waterways are not only crucial for trade, but for many nations and peoples they continue to serve as important ocean highways for travel and fishing.

Thus, it is only appropriate that Egypt follow through on its avowed intent to ensure the safety of navigation on the Red Sea after a series of explosions against ships there in recent days. Among other steps, the Egyptian government called upon the United States to send in a team of mine experts to study the mysterious explosions, which by one count damaged at least 15 ships traveling the Red Sea and the Gulf of Suez. As of this writing, the US was also prepared to send helicopters into the Red Sea to help sweep any mines from the waterway that might still be there. No mines are believed to be in the 108-mile-long Suez Canal itself. The canal links the Mediterranean, Red Sea, and Gulf of Aden.

Closing the Suez Canal would not be as economically damaging as, say, closing off the Persian Gulf, through which much of the world's oil is transported. If the canal were closed, tankers could always be routed around Africa, although at additional cost to shippers. Still, the principle of unrestricted access to waterways needs to be upheld. Moreover, the Suez Canal is an important source of foreign-exchange earnings for Egypt.

Whether mines were planted in the Red Sea by the Islamic Jihad organization, a Muslim fundamentalist group, is still somewhat uncertain. A person claiming to represent the group telephoned news agencies and claimed responsibility for planting the mines.

Calm - but firm - action is warranted. It is fitting that Democratic contender Walter Mondale supported the Reagan administration move to possibly use American aircraft to clean the Red Sea. Protecting sea lanes is not, and should not be, a partisan policy. Having said that, it is also important that any such US mine-sweeping operations, when and if undertaken, and wherever undertaken, be done in a nonthreatening way. That means concentrating on essential cleaning work and avoiding rash actions taken for purposes of retaliation.

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