US visa ban looms on Indians, other crew released from Iranian tanker

Indians, including 3 Keralites, aboard the detained Iranian oil tanker released
The detained Iranian tanker, Grace 1 .

Washington: The United States threatened a visa ban on the crew of the Iranian supertanker whose release from Gibraltar Washington failed to block.

The vessel was suspected of violating European Union sanctions on oil shipments to Syria, and its seizure deepened international tensions in the Persian Gulf.

After a hearing in Gibraltar on Thursday, the local Supreme Court of the region ruled that the tanker should be released after formal written assurances from Iran that the ship would not discharge its cargo in Syria and therefore not be in breach of EU sanctions.

The crew, which includes 24 Indians of whom 3 are Keralites, was released of all charges. They will now be able to sail on to a destination agreed with Iran and the owner of the tanker, the National Iranian Oil Company.

The move came in the wake of efforts to defuse tensions with Tehran by British officials, notwithstanding the US Department of Justice's last-minute attempt to seize the vessel.

State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said the Grace 1 was assisting Iran's Revolutionary Guards, which the US deems a "terrorist organization," meaning crew members "may be ineligible for visas or admission to the United States under the terrorism-related inadmissibility grounds."

"I am grateful and thankful for my release. And I am grateful to all who have facilitated my release in my legal team," the Indian Captain of the Grace 1 tanker said in a statement.

Indian Minister of State for External Affairs, V Muraleedharan took to twitter to inform that he "spoke to our High Commission in London on VLCC Grace 1. They confirmed all 24 Indian crew aboard VLCC Grace 1 have been released by Gibraltar authorities and are free to return to India."

The three Keralites are Kasaragod native P Prajith (33), Malappuram native KK Ajmal (27) and Guruvayur native Rejin (40).

The Grace 1, carrying 2.1 million barrels of Iranian crude oil, was seized last month in a British Royal Navy operation off Gibraltar. Iran called the seizure by Gibraltar an "act of piracy."

Shortly after the detention of the Grace 1, Iran seized the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero, which remains held by the Islamic Republic. Analysts had hoped the release of the Grace 1 by Gibraltar would see the Stena Impero similarly released.

In past weeks, the Persian Gulf region has seen six attacks on oil tankers that the US has blamed on Iran and the downing of a US surveillance drone by Iranian forces. Iran has denied being behind the tanker attacks. Iran also has seized other oil tankers.

Tensions have escalated in the Persian Gulf region since Trump over a year ago unilaterally withdrew the US from Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. The decision stopped billions of dollars' worth of business deals, largely halted the sale of Iran's crude oil internationally and sharply depreciated Iran's currency, the rial.

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