India says Iran frees 9 crew from seized Panama-flagged tanker

Release of 9 comes as 21 other Indian sailors remain in Iranian detention, including 18 in UK-flagged Stena Impero.

Fleet replenishment oiler USNS Big Horn, amphibious assault ship USS Boxer, and fleet replenishment oiler USNS Tippecanoe transit the Arabian Gulf
Heightened tensions between the Iranian government and Britain and US over shipping in the Strait of Hormuz came after US said it would sanction countries buying oil from Iran [US Navy via Reuters]

Iran has freed nine out of 12 Indian crew members from a Panama-flagged tanker seized almost two weeks ago in the Strait of Hormuz, India’s foreign ministry has said.

Ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar said on Friday those released “will be on their way to India soon”.

“Our mission in Iran has requested the concerned Iranian authorities for the release of remaining crew members,” he was quoted as saying by AFP news agency.

There was no immediate comment by Iranian officials.

Iran had accused the vessel, the MT Riah, of smuggling contraband fuel when it was detained in mid-July amid rising tensions between Iran and the United States in the strategically important Strait of Hormuz, the world’s most important oil artery.

The TankerTrackers online oil shipment website reported that the MT Riah had crossed into Iranian waters on July 14 and stopped transmitting signals shortly after.

The Iranian foreign ministry at the time said a small oil tanker that had gone missing in the Gulf had technical difficulties and was towed into Iranian waters for repairs.

The release of the nine crew means that there are at least 21 other Indians who remain in Iranian detention, including three others from the MT Riah and 18 from the British-flagged Stena Impero tanker which was seized by Iranian forces last week.

The Stena Impero and its 23 crew have been impounded at the southern port of Bandar Abbas for allegedly breaking “international maritime rules”. The vessel is at the heart of a showdown between Iran and Britain.

Apart from the 18 Indians, there are three Russians, a Latvian and a Filipino on the ship.

On Thursday, India said its diplomats in Iran had been given access to the Stena Impero crew.

“All 18 Indian crew members on board are safe and doing fine. Will continue to push for their early release,” V Muraleedharan, India’s junior foreign minister, said on Twitter.

“Crew’s morale is high. Assured all assistance for early release. HCI London will facilitate necessary travel document and related arrangements,” the minister tweeted.

Indian crew member of British-flagged Stena Impero tanker
A relative in Kochi, India, shows photographs of Dijo Pappachan, one of the Stena Impero crew members [File: Sivaram V/Reuters]

Images from inside the ship released by Iran on Monday showed some Indian crew sitting around a table, chatting and smiling. Two members could be seen cooking in the ship’s kitchen.

The tanker’s seizure has deepened a crisis triggered between Iran and Western countries in April when the US said it would sanction countries buying oil from Iran.

Iran has hinted it is open to swapping the Stena Impero for an Iranian vessel, Grace 1, which was seized in Gibraltar allegedly carrying Iranian oil to Syria in breach of international sanctions.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies