Greenpeace activists aren't pirates, says Vladimir Putin

A Russian coastguard officer points a knife at a Greenpeace activist during the attempt to board the Prirazlomnaya oil platform. Photograph: Denis Sinyakov/Greenpeace/EPA

Russian president Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that Greenpeace activists apprehended after trying to scale an offshore oil platform aren't pirates, but defended the detention saying Coast Guard officers had no way of knowing who they were.

Two members of the group were detained 18 September in their attempt to scale the Arctic platform. The coastguard 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.

Putin, speaking at a forum on Arctic affairs, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying: "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 under the guise of Greenpeace. Especially in view of the events in Kenya, really, anything can happen."

It was unclear whether Putin's comments might foreshadow 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 belongs to state natural gas company Gazprom. 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.

• This story's headline was amended on 25 September 2013.