BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Argentina was forced to immediately evacuate 300 crew members on Saturday from the ARA Libertad, a navy training ship seized in Africa nearly three weeks ago as collateral for unpaid bonds dating from the South American nation's economic crisis a decade ago.
Only the captain and a few other members of the crew of 326 sailors will remain on the three-masted tall ship, a symbol of Argentina's navy.
Argentine President Cristina Fernandez decided to pull the rest out after failing to persuade authorities in Ghana to reverse a judge's decision to seize the ship. The judge also refused to allow the ship to be refueled, leaving it without power to maintain essentials and respond to any onboard emergencies, the foreign ministry said.
"That made clear the judge's intention to obligate a sovereign nation to negotiate with an entity dedicated to financial piracy from its fiscal hideaway in the Caribbean. This is the only unacceptable option for Argentina," Foreign Minister Hector Timerman said.
The Ghanaian judge acted on a claim by NML Capital Ltd., which is based in the Cayman Islands. Its owner, billionaire investor Paul Singer, leads a group demanding payment in full, plus interest, for dollar-based Argentine bonds bought at fire sale prices after the country's economy collapsed a decade ago, forcing a sharp devaluation of its currency.
The vast majority of bondholders accepted about 30 cents on the dollar years ago, which is roughly what the holdouts led by Singer initially paid for the bonds.
NML Capital has said Argentina owes it about $350 million, and offered to let the ship leave if Fernandez's government put up a $20 million bond to be forfeited.
Timerman called this "an attack that is nothing more or less than a kidnapping, an extortion and an act of piracy against a sovereign nation."
Argentina didn't say how it would manage to evacuate the crew, which also includes sailors from Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and South Africa. The bondholder group could potentially ask Ghana's courts to seize an airplane flown by Aerolineas Argentinas or the country's military.
Argentina argued that military vessels are immune from seizure as collateral, but Ghanaian authorities were not persuaded.
A lawyer in Ghana for NML Capital, Ace Ankomah, told The Associated Press earlier Saturday that Argentina never responded to the bondholders' offer to fly the crew home.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.