MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina (AP) — An Argentine naval ship detained for more than two months in Ghana because of a billion-dollar international debt dispute returned home to a triumphant welcome Wednesday.
Thousands of Argentine government sympathizers traveled to the seaside resort of Mar del Plata, some 250 miles (400 kilometers) from the Argentine capital, to celebrate the return of the ARA Libertad.
Crowds flooded the streets of Mar del Plata braving the Southern Hemisphere's scorching temperatures to reach the port and catch a first look of the white-flagged tall ship.
When the vessel docked in the port after its long journey, they broke into cheers and claps, many waving Argentine flags and snapping pictures with cameras.
Three planes soared over the ship's masts spewing smoke in the white and blue colors of the Argentine flag.
"I came to join our president in this important moment for all Argentines," said Andrea Zapata, 43, a teacher from Buenos Aires province. "It's not only important for those who support her political project but also because the Libertad ship is a symbol of our country and something all Argentines must defend from those who want to impose their own interests."
Ghana courts ordered the ship held in October on a claim by a Cayman Islands-based hedge fund, NML Capital Ltd. Its owner, American billionaire Paul Singer, leads a group demanding payment in full, plus interest — about $350 million — for dollar-based Argentine bonds bought at fire-sale prices after Argentina's 2001-2002 economic collapse forced a sharp devaluation of its currency.
The conflict over the ship reached an especially tense moment in November when Argentine sailors brandished weapons to block Ghanaian officials from moving the vessel to a less busy dock.
But the United Nations' International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea ordered the ship's release last month after Argentina argued that warships are immune from seizure.
President Cristina Fernandez has called the Libertad a symbol of Argentina's sovereignty and has hailed its return as a victory for the country. She planned to lead a ceremony to receive the ship.
Taking advantage of the city's festive atmosphere, Simon Albornoz, 25, a traveling salesman offered passers-by a calendar of La Libertad, Spanish for "Freedom."
"Sales are going well. We're seeing a lot of people and there's a good vibe," Albornoz said. "I'm mostly here to work but we're going to have a good party."
Argentina, currently Latin America's third-biggest economy, engaged in the biggest sovereign debt default in history a decade ago. The government has restructured about 92 percent of its world record $95 billion debt default since then.
But Fernandez refuses to pay the holdouts, calling NML Capital and others "vulture funds" for buying debt for pennies on the U.S. dollar in 2002, when Argentina's economy was in its worst crisis, and now trying to collect in full.
The fiery, center-left leader says it was their loss for refusing two opportunities to swap defaulted bonds for new, less valuable bonds that the state has reliably paid since 2005.
Members of the political opposition have called the welcoming ceremony for the ship an effort to boost support for Fernandez at a time when Argentines are frustrated by high inflation, violent crime, allegations of high-profile corruption, and government currency controls that make it difficult to buy dollars.
Critics say Argentines were humiliated by the government's failure to foresee that the ship would be seized in Ghana and other ports where it docked during training exercises.
Anti-government activists handed out fliers in Mar del Plata encouraging people to join a pot-banging protest in the evening. "If it were for you, Cristina, they would have kept the ship," the fliers read. "Stop the insecurity, the corruption and inflation for an independent justice."
"We're seeing a lot of people coming in. It's a victory that the vessel is returning and this will be a good event. There are many things I agree with the government, and some I don't," said Dante Stamati, a local magazine vendor.
"The act might be political propaganda to favor Cristina (Fernandez). I'm not OK with the fact that they embargoed the ship."
Associated Press writers Almudena Calatrava in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Luis Andres Henao in Santiago, Chile, contributed to this report.