Four Greenpeace activists who halted drilling by a British-owned oil exploration rig off Greenland have been arrested after they abandoned their occupation because of severe weather.
Greenlandic police arrested the four after high winds buffeted the Stena Don drilling rig overnight, forcing them to abandon mountaineering-style platforms they had suspended by ropes underneath the platform less than 48 hours earlier.
Morten Nielsen, deputy head of Greenland police, said the four men were rescued between 8pm and midnight local time last night using baskets and ropes lowered from the Stena Don's deck after severe winds and waves up to 6m (18ft) battered the platform.
He said it took about four hours to retrieve the protesters, who have now been arrested under Greenlandic regulations for breaching the 500m safety zone around the rig and under Danish criminal law for trespass.
"Basically we were readying ourselves for any eventuality but it worked out, what needed to be done was a rescue operation," said Nielsen.
He also revealed that the police seized Greenpeace's helicopter, which had flown from its protest ship the Esperanza to photograph the rig and Cairn's operations to stop nearby icebergs, yesterday in the town of Qeqertarsuaq.
He said the helicopter had been impounded as evidence, and also to ensure Greenpeace paid any fines or liabilities for its protests in Baffin Bay, which began 11 days ago. The four protesters will make their first court appearance in about 24 hours, after being transferred from the rig to the town of Aasiaat. The four could also be deported, instead of being prosecuted.
The activists' retreat is a setback for Greenpeace, which believed a longer-term occupation of the rig would be a serious blow to attempts by the Edinburgh-based exploration firm Cairn Energy to strike oil or gas before the intense Arctic winter sets in.
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However, sources in the region had predicted when the four protesters clambered on to the platform at dawn on Tuesday that severe weather forecast for early this morning would cut short their occupation.
Greenpeace has warned that if Cairn strikes oil or gas, it will provoke an "oil rush" in the vulnerable and unspoilt waters of the Arctic as the world's largest oil firms exploit one of the world's largest untapped reserves.
Cairn Energy said drilling had resumed as soon as the four were arrested. Industry experts had denied the campaigners' claims that a delay of four or five days would have seriously damaged the drilling operation; the company had built delays and unscheduled stoppages into its schedule.
The four are now expected to be prosecuted by Greenlandic police, but Greenpeace said said it would now widen its campaign against deep sea drilling by taking the British government to court.
The group has sent the government a "letter before action", accusing ministers of issuing new licenses for deep sea drilling in British waters before they had found out exactly what caused the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
John Sauven, Greenpeace UK's executive director, said: "Our climbers have stopped this rig from drilling in the fragile Arctic for two days, and this is just the start of a long campaign. The world needs to go beyond oil, but here in the UK the government is waving through applications for new drilling as if the Deepwater Horizon explosion never happened.
"The Gulf of Mexico disaster was a game changer, so ministers should suspend new deep water licences and companies like Cairn Energy must stop dangerous drilling in the Arctic and start investing in clean alternatives instead."