By Hyung-jin Kim and JOHN GAMBRELL, Associated Press
SEOUL (AP) – Armed Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops drove off a South Korean tanker and forced the ship to change course and travel to Iran, the ship’s owner said on Tuesday, Tehran’s latest maritime seizure on its nuclear program Tensions with the West increased.
The military raid on MT Hanuk Chemi on Monday was accompanied by Iranian explanations that they had intercepted the vessel to intercept the waters of the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. Instead, it appeared that the Islamic Republic sought to increase its advantage over Seoul before negotiating over billions of dollars of assets in South Korean banks under a US pressure campaign targeting Iran.
A spokesman for the Iranian government, when asked about the seizure on Tuesday, offered the clearest acknowledgment yet of the link to Tehran’s frozen assets.
“If someone is said to be a hostage holder, it is the South Korean government that has taken more than $ 7 billion hostage under a vain excuse,” said spokesman Ali Rabie.
Iran also began enriching uranium by 20% on Monday, a small technological step 90% off weapons-grade levels at its underground Fordo facility. The move appeared in the last days of President Donald Trump’s administration with the aim of putting pressure on the US, which was unilaterally withdrawn from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers, and ahead of President-Elect Joe Biden’s inauguration , Who said he would make up for it. Re-enter the agreement.
An official of DM Shipping Co. Ltd. of Busan, South Korea, who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters, offered details of Hanuk Chemi’s seizure. The ship was traveling from the Jubail, Saudi Arabia to Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates, when Iranian forces arrived on board the ship and said they would board it.
The official said that initially, the Iranian military said they wanted to run an unspecified check on the ship. The officer said the captain of the vessel spoke to the company’s security officials in South Korea, armed Iranian soldiers blew up the tanker as the Iranian helicopter flew overhead. The officer said the soldiers demanded an unspecified investigation sending the tanker into Iranian waters and refused to explain themselves.
The company has since been unable to reach the captain, the official said. The officer said security cameras were installed on the ship which initially closed the scene on the deck to the company.
The officer said the company received an anti-piracy security alert notice after the company lost contact with the captain, suggesting that the captain activate the onboard warning system. It is unclear if the ship tried to call for outside assistance.
The US Navy’s Middle East-based 5th Fleet regularly patrols the area with a US-led coalition monitoring the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf, through which 20% of the world’s oil passes. A separate European-led effort also operates there.
The officer denied the vessel polluting the water.
In the past months, Iran has stepped up pressure on South Korea to unlock some $ 7 billion in frozen assets from the sale of oil earned before the Trump administration tightened restrictions on the country’s oil exports.
The head of Iran’s central bank recently announced that the country tied up in a South Korean bank to purchase the coronavirus vaccine through COVAX, an international program designed to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to participating countries. Wanted to use the money.
South Korea’s foreign ministry said it plans to send a delegation of officials to the talks for the early release of the ship and its crew members on Tuesday. The crew consisted of sailors from Indonesia, Myanmar, South Korea and Vietnam, according to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. South Korea’s Ministry of Defense said it was sending its anti-piracy unit to the Stromate of Hormuz – a 4,400-tonne class destroyer with about 400 soldiers.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Choi Young-sam said that Iranian officials have assured South Korea that the ship’s crew are all safe. He said a South Korean diplomat based in Iran has been sent to the location of the detained ship.
The US State Department joined South Korea for the immediate release of the tanker, jeopardizing “naval rights and freedoms” in the Persian Gulf to “evacuate the international community to relieve sanctions pressure” on Iran Was accused.
Last year, Iran similarly seized a British flagged oil tanker and kept it closed for months after its tankers were shut down from Gibraltar.
Also on Tuesday, the Iranian military launched an elaborate, two-day aerial drill in the north of the country, state media reported that fighter and unmanned aircraft facilities, as well as naval drones sent from ships in Iran’s southern waters Huh. State TV aired footage of scores of drones on a runway in the northern province of Semnan, near the vast Kavir desert.
Iran has practiced with military drones before; It regularly releases footage from surveillance drones of American aircraft carriers passing through the Persian Gulf. This week’s drill also includes a modern “suicide drone” that hovers on the battlefield before reaching a target, the TV report said.
Episodes of fresh tensions between Iran and the West coincide with the anniversary of the US drone strike that killed Guard General Qasim Soleimani in Baghdad last January. Iran responded by launching ballistic missiles at US bases in Iraq, injuring dozens of American soldiers. Tehran accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet the same night, killing all 176 people.
As the anniversary drew closer and apprehensions grew, Iran retaliated by sending B-52 bombers into the area and ordering the nuclear-powered submarine to be sent to the Persian Gulf.
Acting US Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller said late Sunday that he changed his mind about sending aircraft carrier USS Nimitz home from the Middle East and would instead put the vessel on duty. He cited Iranian threats against Trump and other US government officials, without elaborating, the reason for the redistricting.
Last week, sailors discovered a mine tied to a tanker in the Persian Gulf, far from Iraq, near the Iranian border, as it prepared to transfer fuel to another tanker owned by a company traded on the New York Stock Exchange was. No one has claimed responsibility for keeping the mine, although it comes after similar attacks near the Strait of Hormuz in 2019 that the US Navy accused Iran. Tehran denied involvement.
Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Nasir Karimi, author of The Associated Press in Tehran, Iran; Isabel Debre in Dubai; Tia Goldenberg in Tel Aviv, Israel; And Robert Burns and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.
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