Iran releases nine Indian crew members from seized tanker MT Riah

The vessel was detained by the Iranian coastguard on July 13, with 12 Indian crew members on board

epa07725799 An undated picture made available by Iranian state television's English-language service, Press TV, on 18 July 2019, shows the Panamanian-flagged oil tanker MT Riah surrounded by Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessels in strait of Hormuz in Persian Gulf, Iran. Iran said on 18 July 2019, that its Revolutionary Guard seized a foreign oil tanker and its crew of 12 for smuggling fuel out of the country, the Riah, which had disappeared off trackers in Iranian territorial waters over the weekend.  EPA/PRESS TV / HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
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Iran has released nine Indian crew members of a tanker its authorities boarded and seized earlier this month, India's foreign ministry said on Saturday.

The MT Riah was stopped and seized by the Iranian coastguard on July 13 but 12 Indian crew members were on board. It remains unclear why three Indian crew members were not released.

New Delhi has called on Tehran to release the remaining crew members on the ship.

"Nine crew members have been released and they will be on their way to India soon," foreign ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar said.

"Our mission in Iran has requested the concerned Iranian authorities for the release of remaining crew members."

Iranian state TV aired footage of the vessel a few days after it was seized, saying it had been detained by Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards for smuggling fuel.

Indian and Iranian authorities said this week Iran had granted India consular access to 18 Indian crew seized on another ship, the British-flagged Stena Impero, that Iran seized in the Strait of Hormuz on July 19.

The seizure of the British tanker in the world's most important waterway for the oil trade has deepened a crisis between Iran and the West that was triggered in May when the United States tightened sanctions, effectively barring all countries from buying Iranian oil.

Iran said it had seized the Stena Impero because it had collided with a fishing boat.

India's junior foreign minister, V Muraleedharan, said India was pushing for the release of the Indian crew on the British vessel.

India has had long-standing political and energy ties with Iran, but it has cut off all its oil supplies from it because of US sanctions.

The release came on the same day that Oman's top diplomat travelled to Tehran to discuss the escalation in the Gulf. Oman has maintained ties with Iran despite a freeze in relations between the Islamic republic and other GCC nations.

Omans minister responsible for foreign affairs held talks with Iran's foreign minister on Saturday, Iranian state media reported.

Oman maintains friendly ties with both the United States and Iran and has previously been a go-between for the two countries, which severed diplomatic relations after the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, state television reported, without giving details of the talks.

"The visit was conducted in the framework of bilateral relations and continuous consultations of the two countries with the aim of exchanging views on recent regional developments, bilateral relations, ...and international issues," state television reported.

Neither Oman nor Iran has confirmed that any mediation efforts are underway.

Tensions in the Gulf have soared since last year when President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and reimposed sanctions on the country.

In retaliation, Iran said in May it would disregard certain limits the deal set on its nuclear programme and threatened to take further measures if remaining parties to the deal, especially European nations, did not help it circumvent US sanctions.

Tensions have escalated further in the region with a string of incidents involving tankers and drones.

The United States and Gulf powerhouse Saudi Arabia accused Iran of being behind multiple attacks on tankers in the Gulf in June, which Iran denies.

On July 19, a British-flagged tanker was impounded by Iran's Revolutionary Guards with its 23 crew aboard in the Strait of Hormuz.

The British ship is now in an Iranian port, along with its 23 crew members.

The seizure was seen by London as a tit-for-tat move for British authorities detaining an Iranian tanker off the UK overseas territory of Gibraltar in early July.

Oman has called for the release of the UK-flagged Stena Impero and for London and Tehran to resolve their dispute diplomatically.

Representatives of the Russian embassy in Iran have visited three Russian crew members from the British vessel, the Russian embassy in Tehran said on Saturday.

The three crew members are in good health and have no complaints about their conditions, but are still being held on the vessel, the embassy told Reuters.

The Russian citizens can contact their families, the embassy said, adding it was in talks with Iranian officials to release the men.