Iran agrees to release crew of seized South Korean tanker

The development comes as Tehran urges Seoul to released billions of dollars of Iranian assets frozen in South Korea.

The Hankuk Chemi incident was the first seizure of a big vessel by Iran's naval forces in more than a year [Yonhap via AFP]

The Iranian government says it has agreed to allow the crew members of a South Korean ship it seized last month for alleged environmental pollution to leave the country.

“Following a request by the South Korean government … the crew of the Korean ship … have received permission to leave the country in a humanitarian move by Iran,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said on Tuesday.

Khatibzadeh said the legal case against the South Korean-flagged MT Hankuk Chemi and its captain continues. He did not specify whether the crew, which included sailors from Indonesia, Myanmar, South Korea and Vietnam, had already left.

Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi spoke by telephone with his South Korean counterpart Choi Jong-kun on the release of the crew of 19 and the issue of releasing $7bn in Iranian funds frozen in South Korea because of sanctions imposed by the United States.

“The two sides … shared the view that the release of the sailors was an important first step to restore trust between the two countries and they will work to resolve the issue of frozen Iranian assets in South Korean banks,” South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

“Choi also said South Korea will do what it can in a speedy manner while discussing consultations with the United States on the issue,” it said.

Iran has on several occasions denied allegations that the seizure was done in response to the freezing of the funds.

Choi had visited Tehran last month on a long-planned trip and discussed the issues of the tanker and the funds.

He met 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.

Iran had warned its early January seizure of the tanker must not be politicised, after the US and France urged it 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, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) 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.

Tehran denied the two cases were related.

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

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies