(Update 1: adds Iranian reaction)
Tehran/Seoul, Jan 5 (efe-epa).- The government of Iran said on Tuesday that a South Korean oil tanker under its custody was not taken hostage but seized for allegedly causing environmental pollution, although simultaneously accusing Seoul of freezing Iranian funds.
Government spokesperson Ali Rabiei said Tehran was “used to such allegations,” but claimed that it was the South Korean government that “had taken over $7 billion of ours hostage on baseless grounds,” and placed hurdles in the way of its return for purchasing medicines.
Due to the United States’ sanctions against Iran, South Korea had frozen Iranian assets worth $7 billion in its bank accounts, and Seoul reacted furiously after its vessel MT Hankuk Chemi was seized and its crew detained by Tehran on Monday, calling it pressure tactic.
However, Rabiei said that the “seizure was carried out following a court order after the tanker had caused oil pollution in the Persian Gulf, adding that the vessel had been given a warning in advance.
The spokesperson insisted that the seizure was a normal procedure and a “technical issue” without a political motive behind it and that similar actions had been carried out in Iran and maritime areas of other countries in the past.
Earlier, Seoul had urged Tehran to “immediately release” the vessel, which was seized by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps for causing “environmental and chemical contamination” and taken to the port of Bandar Abás.
The South Korean Foreign Ministry and its embassy in Iran “have learned that the crews are safe, and are requesting the early release of the ship,” the ministry said in a statement Monday night.
According to the Yonhap news agency, the South Korean defense ministry has also sent the anti-piracy Cheonghae Unit to the spot where the vessel was seized.
The unit will respond in cooperation with the ministries of foreign affairs and fisheries and a multinational naval force operating in nearby waters, the news agency said.
The vessel had a cargo of 7,200 tons of chemical and oil products with about 20 crew members from countries such as South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Myanmar onboard.
It left the port of Al Jubail in Saudi Arabia and was bound for the United Arab Emirates.
But the ship was stopped in the Persian Gulf and transferred to Bandar Abás where “the issue is to be dealt with by the judicial officials,” the IRGC said in a statement.
The Iranian military said the seizure was carried out at the request of the Ports and Maritime Organization and by the order of the Prosecutor’s Office of Hormozgan Province, whose capital is Bandar Abás.
An official of DM Shipping, the firm operating the vessel, denied allegations that the ship had polluted waters in the Persian Gulf.
The official told Yonhap that Iranian troops contacted the vessel as it sailed on high seas.
They demanded the ship face examinations in Iranian waters, he added.
The incident comes even as tensions are rising in the Persian Gulf between the United States and Iran.
Iran has already begun enriching uranium up to 20 percent at an underground facility in retaliation for US sanctions.
Ties between the two countries deteriorated after the US pulled out of an international nuclear agreement and imposed sanctions on the Iranian oil sale.