Russian president Vladimir Putin has said Greenpeace activists held after trying to scale an offshore oil platform are not pirates, but he defended the action saying Coast Guard officers had no way of knowing who they were.
Two members of the group were detained after they tried to climb 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.
Mr Putin said: : "I don't know the details of what went on, but it's completely obvious they aren't pirates." He added, however, that the officers "didn't know who was trying to seize the platform. Especially in view of the events in Kenya, really, anything can happen."
It was unclear whether his comments would lead to leniency for the activists, who could face 10-15 years in prison if convicted of piracy.
The detained activists are from 18 countries, including Russia, and a long detention or trials could draw unwelcome international attention to Russia's tough policy against protests.
The platform, belonging to 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 has said 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.