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Gibraltar allows Iranian tanker Grace 1 to leave despite US detention request

Jorge Guerrero, AFP | File photo of supertanker Grace 1 off the coast of Gibraltar on July 6, 2019.

Gibraltar on Thursday allowed an Iranian supertanker at the centre of a standoff with Tehran to leave, ignoring US requests to keep it detained. Iran's foreign minister accused the US of attempted piracy in trying to prevent the tanker's release.

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Gibraltar decided on Thursday to free the Grace 1, seized by British Royal navy commandos in pitch darkness off the British overseas territory six weeks ago.

But it said the US Department of Justice had applied to detain the tanker, held on suspicion of smuggling oil to Syria in breach of European Union sanctions.

"The US attempted to abuse the legal system to steal our property on the high seas," Iran's foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted. "This piracy attempt is indicative of Trump admin's contempt for the law."

The release of the Grace 1 comes after the US under President Donald Trump pulled out of Iran's nuclear deal with world powers over a year ago, setting in motion a growing confrontation between Tehran and the West over its atomic program.

In past weeks, the Persian Gulf region has seen six attacks on oil tankers that the US has blamed on Iran and the downing of a US surveillance drone by Iranian forces. Iran has denied being behind the tanker attacks, though it has seized other tankers.

The Gibraltar Chronicle newspaper reported there was no US application before the court when a hearing on the Grace 1 resumed Thursday afternoon, quoting the court's chief justice, Anthony Dudley. That allowed the ship to be freed.

It was a stark change from a morning hearing, which saw Gibraltar say the Justice Department sought to seize the vessel "on a number of allegations".

Dudley said that were it not for the US move, "the ship would have sailed," the Chronicle reported.

The Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment.

The Grace 1, carrying 2.1 million barrels of Iranian crude, was suspected of violating European Union sanctions on Syria, namely its Banyas refinery, where the Grace 1's cargo was allegedly headed, according to authorities in Gibraltar. 

Shortly after the detention of the Grace 1, Iran seized the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero, which remains held by the Islamic Republic. Analysts had said the release of the Grace 1 by Gibraltar could see the Stena Impero similarly released.

Signaling preparations for the expected release of the ship, the captain, an Indian national, and three officers of the Grace 1 were released from detention Thursday, the government said.

The whereabouts of the released crew, none of whom are Iranian, were not immediately known. The crew of the Grace 1 includes sailors from India, Pakistan and Ukraine, according to Iranian state television.

Beyond a few Gibraltar-flagged patrol boats, an Associated Press crew saw little security around the tanker on Thursday as speculation mounted over its impending release. A handful of men could be seen from a distance on the deck, some of them carrying binoculars and looking into the horizon.

This is the second time the Trump administration has moved to seize a ship in recent months. In May, the Justice Department announced that it had seized a North Korean cargo ship used to supply coal to the isolated nation in violation of international sanctions.

Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, said the US request on the Grace 1 was based on its own imposed sanctions on Iran, and not the EU's sanctions on oil exports to Syria.

"Although the US expects its European allies to abide by these sanctions, it is up to the Gibraltar authorities to assess the allegations presented by the US," Khatib said.

The US has been asking its allies to take part in a naval mission to protect shipping in the strategic Strait of Hormuz, at the Mouth of the Persian Gulf, though European nations have been reluctant.

Britain has so far been the only one to express willingness to join a maritime security mission. It has also been giving UK-flagged vessels a naval escort since the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's seizure of the Stena Impero.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AP)

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