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LATIN AMERICA

Argentina to take Ghana to court as sailors bristle against frigate's seizure

Port authorities' attempt to board impounded vessel met by show of arms

Sailors from the Libertad offload trash bags in the Ghanaian port of Tema, where their ship has been impounded.
Sailors from the Libertad offload trash bags in the Ghanaian port of Tema, where their ship has been impounded.Chris Stein (AFP)

Argentina was expected on Wednesday to take Ghana to an international maritime court after the West African nation missed a deadline to release a 19th-century navy ship it confiscated earlier last month as part of an international debt dispute.

Tensions between the two nations reached a dangerous standoff last week when sailors on board pointed their guns to prevent Ghanaian officials from boarding the vessel. A Ghana court had ordered the Libertad to be moved to a new berth to free up the dock at the port of Tema, where the training ship has been held since October 2.

The government in Accra was acting on a US federal court order sought by NML Capital, a Cayman Islands investment fund headed by a US citizen, which says that Argentina owes some 282 million euros to investors from a massive debt default that took place in 2002. All but 45 of the frigate's 281-member crew were sent back to Argentina.

On Monday, Argentina's Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman said that his government will take Ghana before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, which is based in Germany, if it didn't release the three-mast vessel by Tuesday. Libertad is a navy school ship that was making a global tour when it docked in Ghana in early October.

They pointed guns at us and threatened to shoot if we dared enter the vessel"

The Buenos Aires daily La Nación reported Tuesday that government has hired a Hamburg law firm to file the complaint, which will accuse Ghana of violating international maritime conventions. Ghanaian port officials said that they sought a local court order to move the ship because it was causing a bottleneck of vessels trying to deliver imports. Tema Port acting director Jacob Kwabla Adorkor told AFP on Sunday that the sailors first sprayed Ghanaian officials with water before pulling out their rifles.

"They pointed guns at us and threatened to shoot if we dared enter the vessel. Consequently, they removed the gangway, preventing us from entering the vessel," he said.

Argentina argues that Ghana is barred from boarding the ship under international maritime law.

Aside from the battle over the Libertad, the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is also facing troubles closer to home. On Thursday in Buenos Aires thousands of citizens took to the streets in one of the biggest anti-government rallies in recent years. The march was organized by citizens across the country through the social networks and other internet sites. At least 50 anti-Fernández de Kirchner groups were said to have organized the demonstration.

The organizers, most of whom prefer to remain anonymous, began Thursday's protest with the banging of pots and pans at the busy intersection of Santa Fé and Callao avenues. One of the groups, Anti-K, has more than 47,000 members on its Facebook page and is led by lawyer and accountant Mariana Torres. "Cyber militancy is very important today. We try to come up with policies but we are not members of any party - those are the fanatical ones," Torres said in an interview with La Nación.

One of the biggest complaints lodged by citizens is the "unofficial" petition drive that is being circulated calling for an amendment to the Constitution so that Fernández de Kirchner can run for a third term. The president has not said publicly whether she would like to run again in 2015.

But on Friday she called the organizers "provocateurs" who want "to return to an ultra-conservative regime."

"They confuse the people, and those who are not confused are the ones responsible for manipulating and lying; they are the ones who are hiding their true motivations," the president said, without referring to any of the groups by name.

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