Pride of Argentine navy back home after debt tussle

Argentina greeted with pomp and politicking Wednesday a navy frigate released after being swept up in a debt tussle stemming from the country's economic collapse a decade ago.

Captain Pablo Salonio said his crew had "fulfilled our obligation" by helping ensure the three-masted vessel's safe return home after being impounded for more than two months in Ghana.

"Argentina once again has been attacked by speculative funds, and by others who threaten to come 12,000 kilometers (7,450 miles) to invade and militarize our Malvinas" (Falkland Islands), a defiant President Cristina Kirchner said earlier.

She was referring to British Prime Minister David Cameron, and the fund that had held the Argentine ship.

"We say to them, proudly and with conviction: what we see before us today is a lesson for history," Kirchner told thousands of tourists lining the port of Mar del Plata as the ship the Libertad -- impounded in Ghana for 78 days until it was ordered freed by a UN court in December -- finally arrived back home.

It is summer now in Argentina, and for maximum effect Kirchner -- whose popularity is at a historic low -- chose to have the ship arrive in the coastal resort city rather than the capital because Buenos Aires is quieter than usual due to vacation season.

Military bands piped up patriotic tunes as three small planes soared overhead leaving patriotic blue-and-white trails and more than 100 sailing and fishing boats escorted the frigate into port in the culmination of what the government is billing as a big victory amid economic battles on various fronts.

"We are accustomed to withstanding pressure... and we are going to keep it up. Because nobody is going to take anything from Argentina by extortion or by force," Kirchner said.

The 104-meter (341-foot) long Libertad, with 27 sails, is used for training voyages by navy cadets and is the pride of the Argentine navy.

It was first launched in 1956, made its first training mission in 1963 and since then has logged 40 more for a total of 720,000 nautical miles as it visited more than 500 ports and 60 countries.

It has won several sailing races and is also used to host visiting dignitaries. Lately, its fate has been less glorious.

It spent weeks docked at a port near Ghana's capital Accra starting October 2, under a Ghanaian court order requested and obtained by NML Capital -- a Cayman Islands investment firm that says Argentina owes it $370 million.

Argentina rescheduled and refinanced much of its debt following an economic crisis and massive default a decade ago. But bonds held by speculative funds such as NML, a subsidiary of New York-based Elliott Management Corporation, are among its unsettled business.

"I hope the frigate doesn't stop sailing. And we really have to be on alert because speculative funds do whatever they want," said Danilo Ibarra, 56, a Kirchner supporter waving Argentina's flag.

A dozen sailors climbed the Libertad's masts, waved and smiled, taking in their epic welcome.

"This is something special that because of my young age, I thought I would never see," said Mauro Fernandez Galeano, 25. "To see this rapprochement between the military and civil society is really historic just 35 years after (the last military) dictatorship."

The Germany-based International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea ordered the ship released on December 15 and most of the 326 crew members were soon flown home. A team of 100 sailors was later sent back to Ghana to sail the ship home.

Argentina appeared to have learned a related lesson, however.

It chartered a plane -- rather than use one of its own and risk another court-ordered seizure -- for an Asia trip that Kirchner is set to begin Thursday with a stopover in Cuba's capital, Havana.

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