By Paulo Prada
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan authorities have arrested the American captain of a U.S.-flagged cargo ship after finding three rifles on board, according to a crew member of the vessel and a U.S. embassy official.
Local officials, the crew member said, suspect the vessel of arms trafficking and on Wednesday held crew members, under armed guard, at the rear of the ship while other officials interrogated the captain. The captain, the crew member added, was then arrested and taken from the ship.
The crew member, one of the 14 other Americans who staff the ship along with the captain, gave an account of the episode in an email to Reuters and also posted updates on his Facebook page. He asked that he not be identified.
The detention followed last month's arrest of another U.S. citizen, who was accused of entering illegally from neighbouring Colombia and denounced as a possible "mercenary" by President Hugo Chavez.
Chavez, a socialist seeking re-election next month, is a ferocious critic of Washington, and his nearly 14-year rule has been characterized by frequent bilateral spats and incidents.
The crew member of the "Ocean Atlas" in the email said the vessel has been detained in Maracaibo port, in west Venezuela, since August 29. Venezuelan police, the crew member said, boarded the ship shortly after it moored, saying they had received a tip that the vessel carried illegal drugs.
The officials, he added, searched the vessel and found no drugs, but did find rifles stored on board the ship for security. The captain and crew were then kept from leaving the ship until local officials returned to investigate this week.
The crew member said he and other ship staff have been told they will testify before local authorities Friday morning. A U.S. consular official, he added, boarded the ship Thursday and said he would accompany the crew "the entire time."
A U.S. embassy official in Caracas confirmed the captain's detention and that a consular official was on site in Maracaibo.
"It's an evolving situation," the official said, adding it was unclear what, if any, charges were being pressed against the captain and whether crew members faced charges, too.
He did not provide the captain's name.
Officials at Venezuela's Interior and Ports ministries did not respond to calls and email inquiries about the matter.
A spokeswoman for Intermarine LLC, the New Orleans-based company that owns the vessel, did not provide any details either.
The embassy official and crew member both said the rifles were listed on the ship's manifest. It is unclear whether their presence violated any local law.
Weapons are common on commercial ships on the high seas as possible defence against pirates or other threats. The crew member said the Ocean Atlas' firearms are kept under key in a locker and only taken out when security teams board to help protect the ship in risky regions.
A spokesman for the U.S.-based Seafarers International Union, which represents "about half" the ship's crew, said union officials were in touch with the vessel and Intermarine about the detentions.
"We have been and continue to work feverishly to help resolve the situation and ensure the safety of all the mariners," the spokesman said.
The Ocean Atlas, according to Intermarine's website, is a heavy-lift, multipurpose cargo vessel built in 2000 with a length of 120 meters (394 feet).
(Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Peter Cooney and Lisa Shumaker)