Iran to release all crew but captain of seized South Korean ship

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seized the Hankuk Chemi and arrested its multinational crew of 20 sailors near the strategic Strait of Hormuz on Jan 4.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seized the Hankuk Chemi and arrested its multinational crew of 20 sailors near the strategic Strait of Hormuz on Jan 4.PHOTO: REUTERS

TEHERAN (AFP) - Iran said it has allowed all crew except the captain from a South Korean tanker seized last month for alleged pollution to leave the country in a "humanitarian move".

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seized the Hankuk Chemi and arrested its multinational crew of 20 sailors near the strategic Strait of Hormuz on Jan 4, saying it had polluted the waters.

The development came as Teheran urged Seoul to release billions of dollars of Iranian assets frozen in South Korea due to US sanctions.

"In a humanitarian move by Iran, the crew of the South Korean tanker accused of polluting the environment of the Persian Gulf were allowed to leave the country," foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said in a statement on Tuesday (Feb 2).

Permission had been granted upon "the request of the South Korean government and (with) the cooperation of the judiciary in Iran", he added.

He did not specify whether the crew had already left.

Seoul-based news agency Yonhap cited the South Korean foreign ministry as saying the captain would remain in Iran to look after the tanker. It was not clear when the vessel might be allowed to leave.

The arrested crew were from South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Myanmar.

Former US president Donald Trump in 2018 withdrew Washington from a landmark nuclear agreement with world powers and then reimposed and reinforced crippling sanctions on Iran.

Iran was a key oil supplier to resource-poor South Korea until Washington's rules blocked the purchases.

According to government spokesman Ali Rabiei, Iran has US$7 billion (S$9 billion) of funds blocked in Seoul.

The money can neither be transferred nor earn interest, yet Iran is charged fees on it, he has said.

Iran has on various occasions denied the seizure and the funds are linked.

According to foreign ministry spokesman Mr Khatibzadeh, Iran's deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi was told during a Tuesday phone call with a South Korean counterpart that Seoul was putting in its "maximum effort" to release the funds as soon as possible.

South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun had visited Teheran last month on a long-planned visit, and discussed both the tanker's and the funds issues.

He met with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who told him that restrictions on Iranian funds were the biggest obstacle to their bilateral relations in the current situation, as reported by Iran's official news agency IRNA.

Teheran had warned in January that its seizure of the tanker must not be politicised, after the United States and France urged the Islamic republic to release the ship.

The Hankuk Chemi incident was the first seizure of a major vessel by Iran's naval forces in more than a year.

In July 2019, the Guards seized the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz for allegedly ramming a fishing boat. They released it two months later.

At the time, it was widely seen as a tit-for-tat move after authorities in the British overseas territory of Gibraltar detained an Iranian tanker and later released it, despite US objections.

Teheran denied that the two cases were related.

The Guards seized at least six other ships in 2019 over alleged fuel smuggling.