Iranian forces storm South Korean tanker

“If anyone is to be labeled a hostage-taker, it is the South Korean government that has taken our US $ 7 billion hostage under a futile pretext,” said spokesman Ali Rabiei.

Iran also started enriching uranium by up to 20% on Monday, a small technical step away from 90% guns in its underground Fordo facility. This move appeared to be aimed at putting pressure on the US in the final days of President Donald Trump’s administration, which unilaterally pulled out of Tehran’s nuclear deal with the world powers.

Later comments by the head of Iran’s civilian nuclear program on Tuesday suggested that Tehran’s current uranium production, enriched to 20%, would not reach the levels required for a nuclear weapon for over two years, potentially time for negotiations under President-elect Joe Biden would give.

An official from DM Shipping Co. Ltd. from Busan, South Korea, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to journalists, released details of the seizure of Hankuk Chemi. The ship had been traveling from Jubail, Saudi Arabia, to Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates when Iranian forces reached the ship and said they were going to board.

Initially, Iranian forces said they wanted to conduct an unspecified inspection of the ship, the official said. When the ship’s captain spoke to company security officers in South Korea, armed Iranian troops stormed the tanker when an Iranian helicopter flew overhead, the official said. The troops ordered the captain to sail the tanker into Iranian waters through an unspecified investigation and refused to explain, the official added.

The company has not been able to reach the captain since then, the official said. Surveillance cameras installed on the ship that originally relayed footage of the scene on deck to the company are now turned off, the official said.

After the company lost contact with the captain, the company received an anti-piracy security alert indicating that the captain had activated an on-board warning system, the official said. It remains unclear whether the ship tried to call for outside help.

The U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, based in the Middle East, routinely patrols along with an American-led coalition that oversees the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20% of the world’s oil flows. There is also a separate European initiative there.

The official denied that the ship polluted the water.

In the past few months, Iran has attempted to increase pressure on South Korea to free up roughly $ 7 billion of frozen assets from oil sales before the Trump administration tightened sanctions on the country’s oil exports.

The head of Iran’s central bank recently announced that the country would try to use funds tied up in a South Korean bank to purchase coronavirus vaccines through COVAX, an international program to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to participating countries.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry said Tuesday it plans to send a delegation of officials to Iran to hold talks on the early release of the ship and its crew. According to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the crew consisted of sailors from Indonesia, Myanmar, South Korea and Vietnam. The South Korean Ministry of Defense said it was sending its anti-piracy unit near the Strait of Hormuz – a 4,400-ton destroyer with around 300 soldiers.

The South Korean presidential office said Tuesday it considered the Iranian ship seizure “very serious”.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Choi Young-sam said Iranian officials had assured South Korea that the ship’s crew were all safe. He said a South Korean diplomat based in Iran had been dispatched to the location of the jailed ship.

The US State Department, along with South Korea, demanded the tanker’s immediate release and accused Iran of threatening “navigational rights and freedoms” in the Persian Gulf in order to “blackmail the international community to ease the pressure of sanctions”.

Iran similarly seized a British flag oil tanker last year and held it for months after one of its tankers was detained off Gibraltar.

In Tehran, the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Agency told state television that the current production of 20% enriched uranium in the Islamic Republic would be around 9 kilograms per month.

Ali Akbar Salehi’s comments mean that, at this rate, it would take Iran more than two years to need the 240 kilograms (530 pounds) expert for refurbishing to 90% weapons quality. Salehi said Iran was also working to install newer, faster centrifuges in its facilities.

Also on Tuesday, the Iranian military launched a far-reaching two-day aerial exercise in the north of the country, state media reported, that included unmanned combat and surveillance aircraft and naval drones being dispatched from ships in the southern waters of Iran. State television broadcast footage from dozens of drones on a runway in the northern Semnan Province near the vast Kavir Desert.

Iran previously carried out exercises using military drones. It routinely releases footage of surveillance drones from US aircraft carriers flying through the Persian Gulf. This week’s exercise also includes modern “suicide drones” that hover over a battlefield before descending to a target, the television report said.

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Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associate press writers Nasser Karimi and Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran; and Isabel DeBre in Dubai contributed to this report.

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