BUENOS AIRES The crew aboard an Argentine military training vessel displayed their weapons to keep port authorities in Ghana from forcibly boarding the ship this week to move it to another berth, the Argentine Defense Ministry said on Friday.
The ARA Libertad tall sailing ship was detained in Ghana's eastern port of Tema on October 2 on a court order obtained by NML Capital Ltd, which claims Argentina owes it $300 million on bonds in default since 2002.
About 300 crew members were evacuated from the ship last month and fewer than 50 sailors remain on the vessel to keep up essential maintenance.
When Ghanaian authorities tried to board the ship on Wednesday to ease port congestion by moving it to another berth, the Argentines dissuaded them by putting their guns on display.
The Argentine Defense Ministry said in a statement that port officials first cut off water and power supplies to the ship while mooring personnel and two tug boats approached the vessel. The ship's captain, under orders from Buenos Aires, retracted the landing stage to keep the officials from boarding.
The Ghanaian port authorities responded by placing a crane near the ship as a means to get on board, the ministry said.
"Faced with these circumstances, that the Ghanaian port authority intended to board the ship and forcibly move it without a firm judicial order backing that, the order was given that the crew exhibit their regular arms on deck with the purpose of dissuading any attempt to board," the ministry said.
An Argentine daily newspaper reported that the stand-off was more aggressive.
"I was there and they took out rifles and aimed them at us," Jacob Kwabla Adorkor, a Ghanaian port official, told La Nacion, confirming an article published by Ghanaian newspaper The Chronicle, which said the showdown lasted about four hours.
Argentina's government said Defense Minister Arturo Puricelli communicated with his Ghanaian counterpart to seek his immediate intervention to stop actions that the ministry described as a "clear violation of our sovereignty and an act of hostility."
The port officials eventually desisted.
A 'VULTURE' FUND
The Argentine Defense Ministry initially filed a motion contesting the ship's detention, claiming sovereign immunity for the military vessel, but a court in Ghana's capital, Accra, upheld the seizure as legal. Argentina has appealed the ruling.
Argentine officials call NML Capital a "vulture fund" because it buys distressed or defaulted debt and then sues in international courts to get paid in full.
Creditors like NML have won several billion dollars in court-awarded damages in the United States, but they have largely been unable to collect because most Argentine assets are protected by sovereign immunity laws.
These creditors are called "holdouts" because they rejected Argentina's 2005 and 2010 debt swaps, through which the country restructured about 93 percent of the roughly $100 billion in debt instruments it defaulted on a decade ago.
President Cristina Fernandez said recently that Argentina will not pay "one dollar to the vulture funds."
Foreign Minister Hector Timerman launched a diplomatic offensive in New York last month, urging top United Nations officials to pressure Ghana to release the ship.
(Reporting by Guido Nejamkis; Additional reporting and writing by Hilary Burke; Editing by David Brunnstrom and Philip Barbara)