Photo: La Fragata ARA Libertad
Crew members on the Argentinian naval ship ARA Libertad, which has been impounded in the port of Tema in Ghana, have been ordered to fly home as the diplomatic crisis over the vessel’s future looks set to intensify.The 281 crew members – from Brazil, Paraguay, Peru, South Africa, Suriname, Venezuela, Uruguay and Chile, as well as Argentina – will return to Buenos Aires on a chartered Air France flight on Wednesday, while the most senior officers and a skeleton crew will remain aboard.
Meanwhile, the Argentinian and Ghanaian governments are holding talks to attempt to circumvent a court ruling that gives a US-based vulture fund, NML Capital, the right to sell the 50-year-old frigate unless Argentina settles a $370m (£231m) debt.
Argentina has also held talks with the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, over the conduct of the west African country.
“Meetings between these south American delegations and [the Ghanaian] government are continuing as we speak,” said a source. “We are not talking about interfering with the ruling of the court, but there may be another solution. We will continue talking to the Argentinians and others until we resolve this matter.”
The talks come three weeks after the Libertad, a three-masted training vessel, was detained on arrival in Ghana by order of the country’s high court. Although the ship is forbidden to leave Tema, crew members have been free to leave the vessel, making frequent trips to the nearby capital, Accra.
A delegation from Argentina’s embassy in Nigeria was understood to be holding talks with officials from the Ghanaian ministry of foreign affairs and attorney general’s office. Officials from Chile, which has 15 naval officers on board the Libertad, confirmed that its naval attaché in London, Ronald McIntyre, was also holding talks with Ghana in an attempt to secure the ship’s release.
“The naval officers have been evacuated but the vessel is still in the port,” said Kumi Adjei-Sam, a spokesman for the Ghana ports and harbour authority. “It is causing us a lot of disruption and occupying one of our very busy berths. We need the space back – the order to detain the vessel came from the military and unless we receive a court order to release it soon, we will have to take the matter up with the military authorities.”
The order to evacuate the vessel is the latest in a series of defiant moves by the Argentinian government, which has said it refuses to honour judgments in favour of NML Capital.
NML, which is backed by US billionaire Paul Singer and has a reputation for buying up sovereign debt, is suing Argentina for failing to pay out on bonds it bought from the heavily indebted Argentinian government in 2000, one year before the country’s $100bn sovereign default saw most of its debt restructured.
NML says it will not release the Libertad unless Argentina pays at least $20m of the $370m it is owed. Earlier this month Ghana’s high court backed the fund’s bid to detain the vessel, ruling that the legal immunity usually enjoyed by warships had been waived by Argentina when it entered into the bond swaps. NML has obtained more than $1.6bn worth of judgments against the country in courts in the US and England, and has made numerous efforts to seize Argentinian assets in an attempt to obtain payment.
But Argentina has repeatedly stated its refusal to pay NML, describing the legal bid as a “hoax staged by unscrupulous financiers”.
“All the expenses and damages resulting from the illegal detention of the frigate Libertad will form part of the demand Argentina will present before international organisations,” said the Argentinian foreign ministry.
Last week Argentina removed navy chief Carlos Alberto Paz over the incident, and suspended two other senior naval officials, saying it was launching an inquiry into why the Libertad was allowed to stop in Ghana given the likelihood that NML would bring court proceedings in the country.
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