TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — The sailors from a South Korean tanker seized in the Persian Gulf by Iranian troops last month are free to leave the country on humanitarian grounds, Iran’s state TV said Tuesday.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said a legal investigation into the tanker and its captain would continue. Iran maintains the tanker and its 20-member crew and captain were stopped because of the vessel’s “environmental pollution,” a claim rejected by the vessel’s owner.
Despite that claim, it appeared the South Korean-flagged MT Hankuk Chemi's seizure in the crucial Strait of Hormuz was an attempt by the Islamic Republic to increase its leverage over Seoul. The move came ahead of negotiations over billions of dollars in frozen Iranian assets tied up in South Korean banks amid a U.S. pressure campaign targeting Iran.
The tanker crew, including sailors from Indonesia, Myanmar, South Korea and Vietnam, were in custody at the port city of Bandar Abbas near the Strait of Hormuz. The state TV report did not say whether the captain will be allowed to leave the country or when the sailors might actually be released.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry late Tuesday welcomed the decision to release the 19 crew members, saying it hoped Tehran would also free the captain and the ship.
A ministry statement said Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, informed his South Korean counterpart, Choi Jong-kun, of the crew's planned release during a phone conversation Tuesday evening.
Iran state TV said Araghchi and Choi also discussed the issue of the release of Iran's frozen assets.
Choi and his delegation visited Tehran last month to discuss the release of the ship and crew and some $7 billion in Iranian assets from oil sales tied up in the country’s banks due to American sanctions.
But Iran’s foreign minister had told the visiting South Korean delegation that the release of its vessel and crew was a matter for the courts and out of the government’s hands.
In the South Korean statement, Choi urged Iran to quickly release the captain, a South Korean national, and the seized tanker. The Iranian deputy foreign minister told Choi the captain would be provided with sufficient consular services and receive humanitarian treatment during judiciary proceedings, the statement said.
“The two vice foreign ministers said their governments took an important, first step toward restoring confidence between South Korea and Iran,” the statement said. “They agreed to restore their countries’ traditional, friendly ties of supporting each other when they face difficulties by resolving the issue of the frozen fund.”
To resolve the frozen funds issue, Choi told his Iranian counterpart that South Korea will consult with the U.S. while pushing for unspecified swift steps in areas where it can act unilaterally, the statement said. South Korea and Iran agreed to continue close diplomatic consultations, it said.
The head of Iran’s central bank has said the country wants to use the funds tied up in South Korea to purchase coronavirus vaccines through COVAX, an international program designed to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to participating countries.
At the time of the ship's seizure Jan. 5, an official at DM Shipping Co. Ltd. of Busan, South Korea, said that initially, Iranian forces had said they wanted to run an unspecified check on the tanker. As the vessel’s captain spoke to company security officials back in South Korea, armed Iranian troops stormed the tanker as an Iranian helicopter flew overhead, the official said. The troops demanded the captain sail the tanker into Iranian waters over an unspecified investigation and refused to explain themselves, the official added.
Last year, Iran similarly seized a British-flagged oil tanker and held it for months after one of its tankers was held off Gibraltar.
Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim contributed from Seoul, South Korea.