SEOUL (AP) — Armed Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops stormed a South Korean tanker and compelled the ship to vary course and journey to Iran, the vessel’s proprietor mentioned Tuesday, the newest maritime seizure by Tehran amid heightened tensions with the West over its nuclear program.

The army raid on Monday on the MT Hankuk Chemi was at odds with Iranian explanations that they stopped the vessel for polluting the waters of the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. As a substitute, it appeared the Islamic Republic sought to extend its leverage over Seoul forward of negotiations over billions of {dollars} in Iranian property frozen in South Korean banks amid a U.S. stress marketing campaign focusing on Iran.

Iran on Monday additionally started enriching uranium as much as 20%, a small technical step away from weapons-grade ranges of 90%, at its underground Fordo facility. That transfer appeared geared toward pressuring the U.S. within the last days of President Donald Trump’s administration, which unilaterally withdrew from Tehran’s nuclear take care of world powers, and forward of the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, who has mentioned he’d be prepared to re-enter the accord.

An official at DM Transport Co. Ltd. of Busan, South Korea, who spoke to The Related Press on situation of anonymity as he wasn’t licensed to speak to journalists, provided particulars of the Hankuk Chemi’s seizure. The vessel had been touring from Jubail, Saudi Arabia, to Fujairah within the United Arab Emirates when Iranian forces reached the ship and mentioned they’d board it.

Initially, Iranian forces mentioned they needed to run an unspecified examine on the ship, the official mentioned. Because the vessel’s captain spoke to firm safety officers again in South Korea, armed Iranian troops stormed the tanker as an Iranian helicopter flew overhead, the official mentioned. The troops demanded the captain sail the tanker into Iranian waters over an unspecified investigation and refused to elucidate themselves, the official added.

The corporate has since been unable to achieve the captain, the official mentioned. Safety cameras put in on the ship that originally relayed footage on the scene on the deck to the corporate at the moment are turned off, the official mentioned.

After the corporate misplaced contact with the captain, the corporate acquired an anti-piracy safety alert discover, suggesting the captain activated an onboard warning system, the official mentioned. It stays unclear if the ship tried to name for out of doors help.

The U.S. Navy’s Mideast-based fifth Fleet routinely patrols the realm together with an American-led coalition monitoring the Strait of Hormuz, the slender mouth of the Persian Gulf by which 20% of the world’s oil passes. A separate European-led effort additionally operates there as nicely.

The official denied the vessel had been polluting the waters.

In previous months Iran has sought to escalate stress on South Korea to unlock some $7 billion in frozen property from oil gross sales earned earlier than the Trump administration tightened sanctions on the nation’s oil exports.

The top of Iran’s central financial institution not too long ago introduced that the nation was searching for to make use of funds tied up in a South Korean financial institution to buy coronavirus vaccines by COVAX, a global program designed to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to taking part nations.

South Korea’s Overseas Ministry mentioned Tuesday it plans to dispatch a delegation of officers to Iran for talks on securing the early launch of the ship and its crew members. The crew included sailors from Indonesia, Myanmar, South Korea and Vietnam, based on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. South Korea’s Protection Ministry mentioned it was sending its anti-piracy unit to close the Strait of Hormuz — a 4,400-ton-class destroyer with about 300 troops.

Overseas Ministry’s spokesman Choi Younger-sam mentioned Iranian officers have assured South Korea that the ship’s crew have been all protected. He mentioned an Iran-based South Korean diplomat has been dispatched to the situation of the detained ship.

The U.S. State Division joined South Korea in calling for the tanker’s speedy launch, accusing Iran of threatening “navigational rights and freedoms” within the Persian Gulf as a way to “extort the worldwide group into relieving the stress of sanctions.”

Final yr, Iran equally seized a British-flagged oil tanker and held it for months after certainly one of its tankers was held off Gibraltar.

Additionally Tuesday, the Iranian army started a wide-ranging, two-day aerial drill within the nation’s north, state media reported, that includes fight and surveillance unmanned plane, in addition to naval drones dispatched from vessels in Iran’s southern waters. State TV broadcast footage of scores of drones on a runway within the northern province of Semnan close to the huge Kavir Desert.

Iran has beforehand performed drills with army drones; it routinely releases footage from surveillance drones of U.S. plane carriers passing by the Persian Gulf. This week’s drill additionally incorporates trendy “suicide drones” that hover over a battlefield earlier than diving right down to a goal, the TV report mentioned.

The newest tense episodes between Iran and the West coincide with the anniversary of the U.S. drone strike that killed Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad final January. Iran responded by launching ballistic missiles at U.S. bases in Iraq, injuring dozens of U.S. troops. Tehran additionally by accident shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet that very same evening, killing all 176 individuals on board.

Because the anniversary approached and fears grew of attainable Iranian retaliation, the U.S. dispatched B-52 bombers over the area and ordered a nuclear-powered submarine into the Persian Gulf.

Appearing U.S. Protection Secretary Christopher Miller mentioned late Sunday that he modified his thoughts about sending the plane service USS Nimitz residence from the Center East and as an alternative will preserve the vessel on responsibility. He cited Iranian threats in opposition to Trump and different U.S. authorities officers as the explanation for the redeployment, with out elaborating.

Final week, sailors found a limpet mine caught on a tanker within the Persian Gulf off Iraq, close to the Iranian border, because it ready to switch gasoline to a different tanker owned by an organization traded on the New York Inventory Alternate. Nobody has claimed duty for putting the mine, although it comes after related assaults in 2019 close to the Strait of Hormuz that the U.S. Navy blamed on Iran. Tehran denied involvement.

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Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Related Press writers Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran; Isabel DeBre in Dubai; Tia Goldenberg in Tel Aviv, Israel; and Robert Burns and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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