BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Hundreds of sailors who had to leave the Argentine navy's signature sailing ship moored in Africa, seized by a court in a debt dispute, arrived in Buenos Aires early Thursday, frustrated and disheartened.
They had hoped to sail the tall ship Libertad back across the Atlantic and arrive in Buenos Aires in full glory, but relatives waiting for them at the airport with balloons and banners said the sailors felt ashamed instead.
It appears the Libertad may be stuck indefinitely in Ghana, since President Cristina Fernandez refuses to negotiate with the investors who persuaded a judge to hold it as collateral for Argentina's unpaid debts. NML Capital Ltd. wants Argentina to forfeit a $20 million bond in order to free the ship, but Fernandez has said she won't pay them a dime.
"They had to leave it there without a ceremony, without anything. As a member of the military, that makes me a bit sad," said Paola Garcia, who was waiting for her husband, crew member Maximiliano Alegre.
Both are captains in the navy 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.
NML Capital told the judge in Ghana that the three-masted ship could set sail as soon as Argentina pays $20 million against more than $300 million the investment fund says Argentina owes on bonds that were defaulted on when the South American country suffered economic collapse a decade ago.
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 the ship could remain stuck in Ghana for at least three years, until her term is up.
The president's position saddened the ship's young sailors, who were hoping to sail back to South America.
Because any other Argentine government asset sent to pick up the navy cadets could be seized as well, Fernandez's government was forced to hire an Air France charter to bring back the sailors, who include citizens of a half-dozen South American nations.
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.
The ship's captain and a skeleton crew were left behind to maintain the Libertad 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.
The Argentine newspaper La Nacion reported that Ghana's Ports Authority director, Margaret Campbell, asked the judge to order the Libertad moved to a less-busy berth.
Associated Press writers Francis Kokutse in Accra, Ghana, and Michael Warren in Buenos Aires contributed to this report.