Ghana: Argentine sailors board plane to fly home

FRANCIS KOKUTSE
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Port workers walk past the three-masted ARA Libertad, a symbol of Argentina's navy, as it lies docked at the port in Tema, outside Accra, Ghana, Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012. Argentina has hired an Air France charter to fly nearly 300 navy cadets home from Ghana after failing to persuade the government there to reverse the seizure of its tall ship. Argentina said Monday that 281 crew members from Argentina and a half-dozen other countries will fly to Buenos Aires on Wednesday, leaving the captain with a skeleton crew to maintain the ship at port in Ghana.(AP Photo/Gabriela Barnuevo)

ACCRA, Ghana (AP) — More than 280 sailors from the Argentine navy's signature sailing ship were flying home from Africa in frustration Wednesday after President Cristina Fernandez refused to negotiate the release of the Libertad. The tall ship has been stuck in port outside Ghana's capital Oct. 2, when investors persuaded a judge to detain the vessel as collateral for Argentina's unpaid debts.

Because any other Argentine government asset sent to pick up the navy cadets could be seized as well, the Fernandez government was forced to hire an Air France charter to take home the sailors, who also include citizens of a half-dozen other South American nations.

The case was brought by NML Capital Ltd., 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 eventually 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 a Ghanaian judge that the three-masted tall ship could set sail as soon as Argentina puts up a $20 million bond, which in turn would be forfeited to satisfy court judgments in the United States. Instead, Fernandez sent her ministers to Ghana and the United Nations in failed attempts to persuade Ghana's government to overturn the judge's order.

"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, suggesting that the ship could remain stuck in Ghana — a country where Argentina doesn't even have an embassy — for another three years, at least.

The president's position saddened the ship's young sailors, who were hoping to be able to sail back to South America.

"She doesn't sail in this boat, she doesn't know how it feels," crew member Ivana Gonzalez told a reporter for Argentina's daily La Nacion newspaper in Ghana before flying home. "To me, patriotism means wanting to recover whatever is ours. I feel patriotic not by leaving behind something that belongs to me, but rather by exhausting every possible way of trying to recover it."

The ship's captain and a skeleton crew were left behind to maintain the ship at Ghana's Tema Port, where authorities complained that it has become a nuisance, costing the government thousands of dollars a day in lost fees by forcing delays in transferring cargo to other ships that are now lining up at sea. La Nacion reported that Ghana's Ports Authority director, Margaret Campbell, asked the judge to order the Libertad moved to a less-busy berth wait out a resolution that may be a long time coming.

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Associated Press Writer Michael Warren in Buenos Aires contributed to this report.