MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday defended last week's seizure of a Greenpeace ship but appeared to suggest that the 30 activists and crew taken into custody should not face charges of piracy.
Russian coast guard troops seized the Arctic Sunrise, a Greenpeace ice-breaker, in a dramatic commando operation in the Barents Sea on Thursday, the day after a multinational group of activists attempted to raise a protest banner on a Russian oil drilling platform.
"It is quite obvious that they are not pirates, but formally [speaking] they attempted to capture the platform," Putin said at an international conference on the development of the Arctic in the northern Russian city of Salekhard.
He said the Russian coast guard did not know who was "trying to capture this platform under the guise of the Greenpeace group" and maintained that the activists had violated international law.
The coast guard towed the ship to Kola Bay, about six miles from the northern Russian port city of Murmansk where the activists and crew were interrogated Wednesday.
Greenpeace lawyers were allowed to see the detainees after the questioning, said Maria Favorskaya, a spokeswoman for the group. No charges were filed, but the detainees were told they would remain in custody for 48 hours, pending further investigation, she said.
On Tuesday, authorities said they were planning to charge the activists with piracy, a charge that could carry a prison term of five to 15 years.
"Now that Putin spoke out on the subject, we hope our activists will be released soon and the ridiculous charges of piracy will not be pressed against them," Favorskaya told the Los Angeles Times by telephone from Murmansk. "After their release, we will start working to get our boat back too."