Maersk says crew safe on cargo ship seized by Iran

COPENHAGEN (AFP) - Danish shipping group A.P. Moeller-Maersk said Wednesday that the crew of a chartered cargo vessel seized by Iran was safe, and that the company had been told a cargo dispute was behind the ship's confiscation.

Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards intercepted the Maersk Tigris on Tuesday in the strategic Strait of Hormuz leading into the Gulf.

The Marshall Islands-flagged cargo vessel was operated by Rickmers Ship Management, with head offices in Singapore and Hamburg, and was carrying cargo for Maersk Line, the Danish group's shipping unit which had chartered the ship.

"We are in ongoing contact with Rickmers Ship Management and are pleased to learn that the crew is safe and under the circumstances in good spirits," the Danish group said in a statement.

The managing director of the Iranian Ports and Maritime Organisation, Mohammad Saidinejad, told Iran's official IRNA news agency that the confiscation was ordered after a private company on March 16 filed a complaint against Maersk over unpaid debts.

Maersk said it had been told by the agency that the seizure of the ship was related to "an allegedly unresolved cargo claim".

"We have, however, not received any written notification or similar pertaining to the claim or the seizure of the vessel," the shipping company added.

As such it said it was unable to confirm "whether or not this is the actual reason behind the seizure", but would continue its "efforts to obtain more information".

A spokesman for the Danish foreign ministry told AFP it was "following the situation closely" and that it was "in close dialogue" with Maersk.

The container vessel had a 24-member crew and was carrying regular commercial cargo but nothing related to weapons, according to Cor Radings, a spokesman for Rickmers.

Most crew members were from Eastern Europe and Asia, he told Danish media.

Iranian military ships on Tuesday fired across the bow of the Maersk Tigris when the captain initially refused a demand to head towards Iranian territory, US government and cargo company officials said.

The ship seizure came against the backdrop of heightened tensions in the Gulf, fuelled by the conflict in Yemen and high-stakes diplomacy between Washington and Teheran over Iran's nuclear programme.