Bittersweet homecoming for crew of seized Argentina ship
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Hundreds of sailors from an Argentinian navy ship seized by Ghana have returned home frustrated and demoralized after Argentina’s president refused to negotiate with an investment fund demanding the ship as collateral for unpaid debts.
Nearly 300 sailors from the Argentinian navy ship Libertad returned home on Thursday, expressing mixed emotions after leaving their frigate moored on the West African coast. But the weeks-old row over the sailing vessel appear far from resolved.
Libertad, the flagship of the Argentinian navy that is used for training and humanitarian missions, was not allowed to sail out of Ghana's eastern port of Tema on October 2, after a judge in the capital of Accra accepted an injunction filed by an investment fund that claims Argentina owes it more than 280 million euros.
Having failed to rally support from Ghanaian authorities or from officials at the United Nations in recent days, President Cristina Fernandez was forced to charter an Air France jet to bring the Libertad’s crew home.
The sailors –who were mostly Argentinian but also included some 30 seamen from other Latin American countries– landed in the Ezeiza airport near Buenos Aires shortly after midnight.
Weeping family members greeted them with banners and balloons, but many of the sailors said the homecoming was bittersweet. Some told the Argentinian press they had hoped until their forced departure to sail the ship home.
“I would have liked to stay with the frigate because it is Argentinian and I wanted to stay and fight. We hope to recover it, I want to go back to get it,” an unnamed sailor told La Nacion daily at Ezeiza airport.
Investment fund on the attack
NML Capital, a subsidiary of billionaire Paul Singer's Elliott Capital Management, tracked the Libertad when it set sail across the Atlantic a few months ago and then persuaded a Ghanaian judge to hold the ship as collateral for what it says are Argentina's unpaid debts.
The investment company, blasted as an unscrupulous “vulture fund” by President Fernandez in the national press, bought Argentinian bonds at a discount in 2000 when the country's economy was on the verge of collapse. Argentina later defaulted, and NML says the country must now pay its bond debt.
Battling back from its 2000 crisis, Buenos Aires has rescheduled and refinanced much of its debt, but bonds held by speculative funds like NML are among its unsettled business.
A majority of bondholders settled for 30 cents on the dollar in 2005, but Paul Singer refused to sell out and has become Argentina's nemesis by filing suits to freeze the country's assets around the globe.
NML's lawyer previously said that the Libertad could sail home if Buenos Aires posted a bond of around 15 million euros towards the nearly 300 million NML hopes to recover. However, Fernandez has repeated she would not negotiate with the creditors to recover the frigate.
The prospect of losing the ship has caused consternation in Argentina. In an opinion piece in the leading daily El Clarin, filmmaker and opposition lawmaker Pino Solana laid blame both on previous governments for accruing “fraudulent” debt and Fernandez for “abandoning” the Libertad ship and “hurting the dignity of the Argentinian people.”
A skeleton crew of around 40 sailors, including the ship's captain, has remained with the ship to oversee upkeep.
Ghanaian port authorities have reportedly complained that the ship is becoming a nuisance, delaying shipments coming from other boats and costing the country thousands of euros per day.