August 20, 2008 / 10:15 PM / 11 years ago

Peru joins fray for treasure ship claimed by Spain

MIAMI (Reuters) - Peru has entered the battle for a multimillion-dollar treasure of gold and silver that Spain alleges a U.S. treasure hunting company looted from a Spanish warship sunk in 1804.

The South American nation filed a conditional claim on Tuesday asking a U.S. court to turn over information about the find, which Spain believes to be the wreckage of the Spanish warship La Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes and treasure it was carrying back from what is now Peru.

“This admiralty proceeding may involve part of the patrimony of the Republic of Peru,” the court filing said.

A Florida lawyer representing Peru was not available for comment and the Peruvian Embassy in Washington declined comment.

The battle between Spain and Florida-based Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc began after the company announced it had recovered tonnes of gold and silver coins last year at a wreck site in international waters it code-named “Black Swan.”

The company flew the haul, by some estimates worth $500 million, back to Tampa.

In October a Spanish warship intercepted an Odyssey treasure-hunting ship after it left the British territory of Gibraltar and escorted it to a Spanish port. Police arrested and then released the ship’s captain.

In May, Spain said it could prove the wreck site was that of the Spanish warship Mercedes, which was attacked by British warships off the Spanish coast in October 1804.

An explosion ripped the vessel apart and it sank, killing more than 200 sailors. It was carrying treasure back to Europe from Peru, which was ruled by Spain at the time.

Spain accused Odyssey of stripping the warship of valuables and artifacts and trying to hide its actions by claiming it did not know the identity of the vessel.

Odyssey has said even if the vessel is determined to be the Mercedes, Spain would still have to prove it was the owner of artifacts found at the site and had not abandoned them.

In a statement issued on Wednesday the company welcomed Peru’s claim.

“We believe that Peru’s filing raises a significant and timely question relating to whether a former colonial power or the colonized indigenous peoples should receive the cultural and financial benefit of underwater cultural heritage...,” chief executive Greg Stemm said.

The company said Peru was welcome to take part in a study of any property found to have originated in Peru.

Saying it had never abandoned its interest in its “property and patrimony,” Peru asked the U.S. court in Tampa to turn over information to help it determine if it would make a formal claim for the treasure.

“All of Peru’s sovereign and other rights in its property, artifacts, and other items sunken at sea are and have been reserved.”

Editing by Michael Christie and Cynthia Osterman

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