BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – They were supposed to sail the Argentine military's signature tall ship into the port of Buenos Aires in full glory after a goodwill tour asserting the South American country's place in the world.
Instead, hundreds of sailors had to abandon their frigate, evacuated on orders from President Cristina Fernandez, after the ARA Libertad was detained by a Ghanaian judge in a debt dispute.
Frustrated and disheartened but determined to go back as soon as possible to retrieve their three-masted ship, the sailors arrived home early Thursday on an Air France charter. The Argentine government couldn't send one of its own planes, for fear that it, too, could be seized as collateral.
It appears the Libertad may be stuck indefinitely in Ghana, since Fernandez refuses to negotiate with NML Capital Ltd., an investment fund demanding more than $300 million from the Argentines to pay off bonds that went into default during the country's devastating economic crisis a decade ago.
"They had to leave it there without a ceremony, without anything. As a member of the military, that makes me a bit sad," Paola Garcia said as she waited for her husband, crew member Maximiliano Alegre. Both are navy captains and committed to Argentina's military. He left on the Libertad's latest tour June 2, the day before the birth of their first child, Abril.
"As a mother and a wife, I'm content that they're coming home. But as part of the military, we're sad to leave the frigate with just a few crew members there. I don't know what they're going to do — it's our only frigate and I don't know if we're going to lose it or what," Garcia said.
Alegre teared up as he met his tiny daughter on arrival. Asked about the Libertad, he simply rolled his eyes.
"We're accustomed to moments that aren't always pleasant, but that's what we're trained for," said the ship's second-in-command, Carlos Maria Allievi.
Allievi said the ship's captain and 43 crew members were left behind with the ship at Ghana's Tema Port.
Their first task may be to move the Libertad to a less desirable berth at the busy port, where authorities have complained that it is blocking prime dock space and causing costly delays.
NML Capital is a subsidiary of billionaire Paul Singer's Elliott Capital Management fund, which has demanded payment in full plus interest for its share of the $100 billion in bonds that Argentina defaulted on a decade ago.
The vast majority of bondholders settled for 30 cents on the dollar, but Singer held out and has become Argentina's worst enemy by filing suits around the world to embargo the country's assets. NML Capital told the judge it would accept $20 million in exchange for allowing the three-masted ship to set sail.
Singer's companies are registered in Cyprus and the Cayman Islands, but he's based in New York, where he has become a leading donor to the Republican Party and its presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Argentina has described him as a financial pirate who hides his wealth in fiscal paradises and runs "vulture funds" that prey on developing nations.
"As long as I am president, they can keep the frigate, but no one will take the liberty, sovereignty and dignity of this country — not a vulture fund, not anyone," Fernandez declared this week.
Fernandez has about three more years to go in her second term.
Neither NML Capital nor Elliot Capital Management has commented on the case, but a lobbying organization Singer supports in Washington, the American Task Force Argentina, has said that Fernandez's actions, or lack thereof, are deeply damaging to her nation's reputation and economy.
First Capt. Ariel Bejarano said he's deeply saddened to be evacuated, "because I love Argentina, I love the frigate, and for me this is really hard to bear. We have to recover it."
There was no sign of any government officials waiting at the airport to greet the returning sailors, but double-decker buses were lined up to carry those without waiting families to a navy base, where the Argentine military planned to hold a ceremony Thursday.
Citizens of a half-dozen South American nations who had joined the crew were then expected to fly home.
Associated Press writers Francis Kokutse in Accra, Ghana, and Michael Warren in Buenos Aires contributed to this report.