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Spain seizes U.S. treasure ship at gunpoint

GIBRALTAR (Reuters) - A Spanish warship intercepted a U.S. treasure-hunting vessel that it suspects took gold and silver worth an estimated $500 million from a sunken Spanish galleon, the U.S. crew said on Tuesday.

The Spanish Navy corvette blocked the Odyssey Explorer after it left the British territory of Gibraltar and threatened to open fire when the captain refused to let police board. Police later arrested the boat’s American captain, Sterling Vorus, a company official said.

The warship had escorted the boat, which belongs to U.S. company Odyssey Marine Exploration, to the Spanish port of Algeciras so police could carry out a search.

“They threatened that we must obey or they would use deadly force,” Ali Nessar, a company representative on the boat, told Reuters by phone.

“We were forced at gunpoint to come to Algeciras.”

The incident is the latest in a dispute dating back to May when Madrid said Odyssey’s discovery of the treasure trove might have come from Spanish waters or from a Spanish galleon in international waters. In both cases Spain remains the rightful owner of the booty, the government says.

Florida-based Odyssey Marine Exploration has said it has legally discovered 17 tons of silver coins plus gold while working on a wreck code-named “Black Swan” at a secret location in the Atlantic Ocean.

It says the discovery was made outside of any country’s territorial waters.

Spanish Civil Guard Police boarded the vessel once it docked in Algeciras, then escorted sailors off the vessel one by one before arresting the captain, Nessar said.

Police allowed two engineers to stay aboard but seized cameras and mobile phone chips from crew and journalists traveling on the ship, Nessar said.

Police officials were not available to comment on the raid.

The Odyssey Explorer was making its first foray from Gibraltar’s British naval base since May after a threat from Spain to seize the boat if it left the territory.

Gregg Stemm, Odyssey’s co-founder and co-chairman, said in a statement the firm was waiting for word from the judge who ordered the inspection.

“We had again invited Spanish officials to inspect the Explorer in advance of our departure and they chose not to take us up on it,” he said. “We are not sure what the inspection of the Explorer is mean to accomplish”.