Spain takes war with US firm over treasure out of sea and into courts

THE row over the biggest haul of sunken treasure ever found moved off the high seas and into a Spanish courtroom yesterday, with £250 million at stake.

Lawyers for the US marine exploration company Odyssey failed to overturn a detention order against the Odyssey Explorer after the 2,200-tonne vessel was ordered into the southern port of Algeciras at gunpoint on Monday.

Earlier the captain of the treasure-seeking ship, Sterling Vorus, was released from custody, charged with resisting authority by trying to prevent a search. He was ordered to report to the police in nearby La Linea every 15 days.

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The Explorer was halted by a Spanish naval corvette soon after leaving Gibraltar, where it had been effectively blockaded for six months. The corvette and a civil guard patrol boat shadowed the Explorer until it left Gibraltar's territorial waters then demanded it halt, invoking a court order to impound the salvage ship once it reached what were considered Spanish waters.

Mr Vorus disputed this, saying he was in international waters and refused to allow the navy to board, but eventually agreed to follow the Spanish ships into Algeciras under threat of force.

Spain's culture minister, Cesar Antonio Molina, said the government viewed Odyssey as modern-day pirates. "There have always been navies, laws and the rule of law to help combat pirates," he said.

Spain has been waiting to catch up with the Explorer since May, when Odyssey announced a haul of half a million Spanish coins, worth 250 million, salvaged from a wreck codenamed Black Swan which it said lay 180 miles west of Gibraltar. It refused to name it or reveal the location, claiming it would tempt looters, but Spanish authorities say the ship is the Nuestra Seora de las Mercedes, a Spanish treasure ship sunk by the British in 1804.

Police began searching the Explorer yesterday lunchtime, hoping to unearth evidence which would point to the location of the treasure ship or its identity.

Odyssey first crossed swords with the Spanish government two years ago over plans to salvage treasure from HMS Sussex, which lies off Gibraltar, having been sunk in a storm in 1694 while carrying millions of pounds' worth of coins.

Odyssey and the British government had worked out a split of proceeds, but Spain refused, claiming that as the shipwreck lies within Spanish waters, it had sovereign right to anything salvaged.

What inflamed the argument was Odyssey's revelation that the 500,000 coins from Black Swan were flown out of Gibraltar to Florida in May.

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