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Venezuela drops arms trafficking charges against U.S. ship crew

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 5:44 AM EDT, Mon September 10, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The crew member says the ship has been cleared to sail in the next two days
  • The ship has been docked at Maracaibo since August 29
  • The U.S. State Department confirms the charges are dropped
  • Venezuelan authorities detained the ship and its crew for alleged arms trafficking

(CNN) -- The crew of a U.S.-flagged cargo ship, held more than a week and accused of arms trafficking, is expected to set sail Monday or Tuesday from Venezuela after authorities dropped charges against them.

"While we haven't left yet, it looks like a positive solution has been reached," a crew member, who asked to remain anonymous because of security concerns, said in an e-mail to CNN on Sunday night.

He said the charges were dropped for the captain and the 14 crew members.

A U.S. State Department official confirmed Sunday the charges were dropped, but Venezuela's Ministry of Communications told CNN they had no information regarding the case.

The Ocean Atlas docked at the port of Maracaibo, Venezuela's second-largest city, on August 29, according to the crew member. A few days later, the crew was told the ship was under investigation for arms trafficking, and last Wednesday, the captain and crew were charged.

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The captain, Jeffrey Raider of Texas, was taken into custody and made a court appearance. He came back to the ship once, to move the ship from the docks to anchor in Maracaibo Bay, but he was held on land while the crew members were told to stay on the ship, the crew member said.

After the charges were dropped Sunday, the crew member said the captain was finally able to return to the ship.

The crew member who spoke to CNN said there were "normal shipboard conditions" while the ship has been detained and that there was never any danger or threat of physical harm.

Though the Venezuelan authorities who boarded the ship were armed, he said, "at all times the guns were pointed at the ground."

He thanked the Seafarer's International Union for their help with the case and Crowley Maritime, the ship's manager, for constantly updating the families of the crew.

The Ocean Atlas, built in 2000, is a 393-foot long, heavy-lift cargo ship with two cranes, according to its operator, Intermarine.

State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said last week the detention had to do with customs paperwork for rifles that were on board for the crew's protection.

"We, of course, know that the high seas and that piracy have been a major topic in recent months and years, and so that's something we've been combating," Ventrell told reporters. "It's normal for many ships to have some type of self-defense on board."

The crew member in touch with CNN said the ship's security team keeps the rifles in a locker on board. He said the captain declared the weapons on arrival in Maracaibo and was cleared to have them, but the Venezuelan authorities denied there was permission for the weapons and confiscated them.

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