South Korean Tanker Boarded by Armed Iran Guard Forces

SEOUL (AP) -
In this photo released Monday by Tasnim News Agency, the MT Hankuk Chemi, a South Korean-flagged tanker is escorted by Iranian Revolutionary Guard boats on the Persian Gulf.  (Tasnim News Agency via AP)

Armed Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops stormed a South Korean tanker and forced the ship to change course and travel to Iran, the vessel’s owner said Tuesday, the latest maritime seizure by Tehran amid heightened tensions with the West over its nuclear program.

The military 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. Instead, it appeared the Islamic Republic sought to increase its leverage over Seoul ahead of negotiations over billions of dollars in Iranian assets frozen in South Korean banks amid a U.S. pressure campaign targeting Iran.

The company owning the ship has since been unable to reach the captain, the official said. Security cameras installed on the ship that initially relayed footage on the scene on the deck to the company are now turned off, an official said.

After the company lost contact with the captain, the company received an anti-piracy security alert notice, suggesting the captain activated an onboard warning system. It remains unclear if the ship tried to call for outside assistance.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday it plans to dispatch a delegation of officials to Iran for talks on securing the early release of the ship and its crew members.

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

The U.S. State Department joined South Korea in calling for the tanker’s immediate release, accusing Iran of threatening “navigational rights and freedoms” in the Persian Gulf in order to “extort the international community into relieving the pressure of sanctions.”