By John Acher
COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - Greenland has condemned as illegal a protest by Greenpeace activists who scaled an oil rig in a bid to prevent a British company from drilling in Arctic waters off the North Atlantic island.
At the weekend, three activists from the environmental group's Esperanza vessel climbed into the superstructure of the Leiv Eriksson oil rig and remain hanging 20-30 meters above the water in a survival pod, Greenpeace said. Greenland police said on Monday the activists were trespassing illegally.
The activists climbed aboard the rig to stop Edinburgh-based Cairn Energy from starting drilling at its Atammik block, an area off western Greenland which Greenpeace calls "Iceberg Alley" and says should be out of bounds to drilling.
"There's no way Cairn can drill for oil while we're hanging next to their drill-bit, and it's going to be extremely difficult for them to remove our survival pod," a 25-year-old activist identified as Luke said on Greenpeace's website.
"To drill for oil here would be dangerous insanity. We have to stop the Arctic oil rush," he said.
Cairn drilled three wells off the west coast of Greenland in 2010, in the first drilling to take place there in a decade, and Greenpeace tried last year to disrupt its exploration campaign.
Greenland, a semi-autonomous part of the Kingdom of Denmark, called the action an illegal media stunt.
"It is obviously an illegal action that Greenpeace is engaged in and a serious breach and abuse of the right to sail under all international maritime regulations," Greenland's government said in a statement on Sunday.
"In Greenland, we consider Greenpeace's actions against oil rigs to be an eternal hunt for media attention and ultimately a hunt for financial contributions from the western world," it said. "That takes place cynically at the cost of small developing countries' legitimate right to economic development."
Greenland is heavily dependent on fishing, above all on exports of shrimp, and hopes that discovering oil and gas off its shores will diversify and develop its economy.
Greenpeace has said confidential British Foreign Office documents showed the UK government recognized an oil spill in the remote Arctic would be all but impossible to clear up.
The Leiv Eriksson drilling rig is owned by Ocean Rig, a unit of Greek dry cargo shipper and oil driller DryShips. It is on contract to Cairn which aims to drill four Greenland wells this summer.
"Right now the rig is in a safety zone where access is restricted," Greenland deputy police chief
"The Greenpeace activists are trespassing in the safety zone, against the law," Greenland's deputy police chief Morten Nielsen told Reuters. "They have been asked to leave."
"We will see what happens, how the situation develops and take it from there," Nielsen said. "I am not at liberty to talk about steps we might take or when."
"I hope Greenpeace decides to leave voluntarily, also out of concern of their own safety," he said. "If you are hanging above cold water in a pod like that, it is potentially dangerous for the activists themselves."
The activists say they have food and water for 10 days and are hoping the protest will force Cairn to abandon its search for oil before the winter ice closes in.
(Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)