Deepening mystery around seized Vanuatu yacht

23:42, Jul 31 2012

Two men who crewed one of the world's most glamorous super-yachts, now detained in Vanuatu, have tried to flee to New Zealand, the Vanuatu Daily Post reports.

The 75-metre long Phocea was seized last week amidst speculation that it was running drugs, arms and was involved in money laundering.

Police also said at the time that two cabinet ministers were aboard but a tight news blackout has now been imposed.

The head of the country’s transnational crime unit, Andrew Kalman, said in the wake of the initial raid on the yacht, he had been suspended from his job.

Last week Vanuatu police confirmed they launched the operation and arrested four people, including the skipper.

Police said the yacht had 16 crew members including a Samoan and a Tongan who had been taken into custody.

The two, named as Hiva Matiujaje and Michel Gangatadlakepa, have appeared in the Magistrate’s Court on charges of obtaining Vanuatu citizenship by false and misleading statements. The prosecution attempted to have them remanded in custody, telling the court that both men had earlier been on bail but had been stopped trying to board a plane for New Zealand.

Neither name is a recognised one in Tonga or Samoa.

The men, pleading not guilty, will go to trial later this month.

The Daily Post said there was another raid on Phocea on Monday and items were confiscated.

It said police were also seeking the cabinet ministers for questioning.

Radio New Zealand International today reported that Kalman said his suspension is linked to the Phocea probe.

He said greed and special interests were behind his suspension, which he says has disappointed his immediate superior.

“I’m willing to find out who was the official complainant for my suspension, and I’m willing to take it further in relation to criminal defamation,” he told RNZI.

Police refused to say anything further about the yacht, still moored in Vila Harbour.

The yacht had sailed from Italy through the Panama Canal, to Tonga and arrived in Vila nearly a fortnight ago.

Although Phocea is formally flagged to the land-locked duchy of Luxembourg, the Post says it is owned by a Thai national Anh Quan, who became a Vanuatu citizen this year. He is a principal in a company known as Amazonia Of The Pacific which is attempting to market agricultural produce internationally.

Phocea was built in France in 1976 and at the time was the largest yacht in the world.

In 1997, Lebanese businesswoman Mouna Ayoub purchased it for 5.5 million euros (NZ$8.4 million), part funding it by selling a 112 carat diamond. She is reputed to have spent US$20 million refitting the yacht.