A Spanish court has ordered police to capture and search two vessels belonging to a Florida firm that recently announced it had found a shipwreck in the Atlantic Ocean laden with an estimated $500 million worth of Colonial-era treasure, news reports said Tuesday.
The court in the southern port city of Cadiz instructed police to capture the vessels should they leave the British colony of Gibraltar, on Spain's southern tip, and enter Spanish waters, leading radio station Cadena SER and other media outlets reported.
The reports came out late Tuesday night after the court had closed and it was not immediately possible to confirm them.
The two ships, "Odyssey Explorer" and "Ocean Alert," belong to Odyssey Marine Exploration and are believed to have been involved in the exploration that led to the discovery of the treasure disputed by Spain.
Spain last month filed claims in a U.S. federal court over Odyssey's find, arguing that if the shipwrecked vessel was Spanish or was removed from its waters, any treasure would belong to the country.
In Britain, the find generated press reports that Odyssey had salvaged the wreck of the long-sought British vessel Merchant Royal, which sank in bad weather off England in 1641. Odyssey has not confirmed or denied these reports.
Odyssey insists the shipwreck was outside any country's territorial waters but would not give the exact location or name of the ship. It has said the treasure of gold and silver coins was flown back to the United States from Gibraltar.
Speaking by telephone Tuesday from the United States, Odyssey co-chairman Greg Stemm said Spanish police were welcome to board the ships whenever they wanted.
"Everything we have done we have reported to the Guardia Civil (police). We have invited them on board the ship before and we welcome them to come on board anytime they want to see the ship or inspect what we are doing," said Stemm.
"And we have had a standing invitation for archeologists from Spain to join us since January of 2006 and we still have that invitation out there," he added.
Cadena SER said Spanish Civil Guard police were to be posted off Gibraltar port in preparation should the vessels try to leave. The court order said the ships should be taken to a Spanish port so that their holds can be searched. The ships cannot be boarded by Spanish police as long as they remain in Gibraltar.
Culture Minister Carmen Calvo described the order as "magnificent news," and said the Spanish navy would be prepared to help in the capture, if necessary.
"International laws are behind us and if anything outside the law occurred it will have an answer, and what is ours will return to Spain," the national news agency Efe quoted Calvo as saying.
The minister added that Spain had asked Britain and the United States for information regarding the customs papers used by the plane that transported the coins out of Gibraltar.