Pride of Argentine navy back home after debt tussle

With pomp and politicking, Argentina greeted the arrival Wednesday of a three-masted navy frigate that was caught up in a debt tussle stemming from the country's economic collapse a decade ago.

No less than President Cristina Kirchner was due to address cabinet ministers and thousands of tourists lining the port of Mar del Plata as the Libertad -- impounded in Ghana for 78 days until it was ordered freed by a UN court in December -- finally arrived back home in Argentina.

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

Military bands piped up patriotic tunes; 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 -- under fire on various economic fronts -- is billing as a big victory.

"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 104 meter long (343 foot) 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 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 was 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 Capital Management, 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.

The Germany-based International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea ordered the ship released on December 15 and most of the 326 member crew 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 to begin Thursday with a stopover in Cuba's capital, Havana.

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

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