MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that Greenpeace activists apprehended after trying to scale an offshore oil platform aren't pirates, but defended the detention by saying Coast Guard officers had no way of knowing who they were. Environmentalists viewed Putin's comments as a conciliatory move.
Two members of the group were detained Sept. 18 in their attempt to scale the Arctic platform. The Coast Guard seized Greenpeace's ship the next day and towed it with 30 activists aboard, to Murmansk, where they are being questioned by investigators considering piracy charges.
Putin, speaking at a forum on Arctic affairs, said that "it's completely obvious they aren't pirates." He added, however, that the officers "didn't know who was trying to seize the platform under the guise of Greenpeace.
"Especially in view of the events in Kenya, really, anything can happen," he said — referring to the deadly mall attack in Nairobi.
It was unclear whether Putin's comments might foreshadow leniency for the activists, who could face 10-15 years in prison if convicted of piracy. But Vladimir Chuprov, head of the energy department at Greenpeace Russia, welcomed the remarks as an invitation to settle the matter amicably.
"We're ready for dialogue, and I hope they will hear us," he told a news conference on Wednesday.
The detained activists are from 19 countries, including Russia, and a long detention or trials could draw unwelcome international attention to Russia's tough policy against protests.
The platform, which belongs to an oil subsidiary of state natural gas company Gazprom, is the first offshore rig in the Arctic. It was deployed to the vast Prirazlomnoye oil field in the Pechora Sea in 2011, but its launch has been delayed by technological challenges. Gazprom said earlier this month that it was to start pumping oil this year, but no precise date has been set.
Greenpeace insisted that under international law Russia had no right to board its ship and has no grounds to charge its activists with piracy.
"Charging us with piracy is absurd," said Ivan Blokov, campaign director at Greenpeace Russia. "Greenpeace holds non-violence as a key principle of its work and we are being charged with something that involves violence."
Chuprov denied claims that Greenpeace's ship, the Arctic Sunrise, violated the Russian three-mile security zone.
Although the Russian Coast Guard seized the ship on Thursday and has been keeping the activists captive ever since, the official 48-hour detention for them started only Tuesday night.
Blokov said no member of the crew has seen a lawyer yet and only one foreign national was able to meet with a consular official.
Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.