|Friday, December 7
Seven alleged pirates in custody
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- Police arrested seven men and said they were closing in on another suspect Friday in the slaying of Peter Blake, a yachting champion from New Zealand shot to death by pirates in the Amazon.
"The suspects claimed they fired in self-defense. They said they didn't know anyone famous was aboard and they weren't expecting any resistance," said Federal Police agent Jose Araujo, speaking by phone from Macapa, in Amapa state 1,800 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro.
He said masked pirates boarded Blake's yacht at its anchorage in the mouth of the Amazon River near Macapa on Wednesday night, intending to rob it.
"They were probably attracted by the boat's shiny appearance. They saw it was a rare boat, owned by a foreigner so they figured there was money aboard and lots of expensive equipment," Araujo said.
Police were led to the suspects after questioning a man they believe was shot by Blake or a crew member during the melee. He has a gunshot wound to the hand.
Another suspect confessed to shooting Blake after the yachtsman opened fire with a rifle, police said.
Six of the suspects were from the Macapa area and one was from the neighboring state of Para, Araujo said.
Police were searching for an eighth suspect, who allegedly ferried the assailants to Blake's boat. Amapa state police chief Rosilene Martins de Sena said Thursday three or four assailants approached Blake's boat in a rubber dinghy.
Blake, 53, who led New Zealand to America's Cup victories in 1995 and 2000, was on a worldwide expedition to monitor global warming and pollution when he died.
Two crew members slightly injured in the attack have been released from the hospital.
The attackers took a spare engine and several watches from the 119-foot Seamaster, which had been awaiting customs clearance to leave Brazil after a two-month stay.
A note released by Amapa government late Friday said autopsy procedures were done, and Blake's body was released into the care of New Zealand's Ambassador in Brazil, Denise Almao. The body will be kept at a funeral home in Macapa over the weekend and will be flown back to New Zealand on Monday, the note said.
Blake and a crew of 10 spent two months in the upper reaches of the Amazon and Rio Negro rivers, where they encountered nothing but "friendly, warm, hospitable people," said Alan Sefton, spokesman for Blake's organization, blakexpeditions.
"And as soon as the boat gets back into so-called civilization, something tragic happens," Sefton said.
Brazil's Foreign Ministry said in a statement "the government deeply regrets the tragic death of New Zealand's renowned explorer, yachtsman and scientist."
President Fernando Henrique Cardoso "has ordered that the criminals be promptly identified and arrested," it said.
Earlier this year, Blake was named a special envoy for the United Nations Environment Program.
"One of Sir Peter's special skills was to make the beauty of this planet and the environmental threats to it accessible to the scientist, the politician, business leaders and the 'man and woman' on the street," UNEP executive director Klaus Toepfer said.
In New Zealand, flags flew at half-staff Friday and Parliament paid tribute with a Maori hymn as the country mourned Blake's death.
Prime Minister Helen Clark described Blake as a national hero and compared him to the New Zealand native who made the first recorded conquest of Mount Everest.
"I think he is to the waters what Sir Edmund Hillary has been to the mountains. He's just the most amazingly accomplished yachtsman," she said. "He was an inspiration to all New Zealanders."
Blake's mother, Joyce Blake, said her son had pushed sailing boundaries "to see how far he could go. He loved boats, he loved racing and the water."
In Parliament in Wellington, lawmakers observed a moment of silence for Blake, then joined in singing the hymn "How Great Thou Art" in the indigenous Maori language.
America's Cup challengers, who begin sailing next October to see who will face New Zealand in early 2003 for the America's Cup, canceled training Friday as a mark of respect.
Team New Zealand chief executive Ross Blackman, who organized the 1995 America's Cup campaign with Blake, said the team planned to gather in his honor.
Blake was "a passionately honest person and undoubtedly the best leader and manager of a (racing) campaign that I've ever seen," Blackman said.