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Satellite signals suggest oil tanker seized by Iran freed

Tehran has not acknowledged releasing the Vietnamese-flagged vessel, which it captured on October 24; ship suspected of trying to transfer sanctioned Iranian crude oil to Asia

This frame grab from a video released by Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard on November 3, 2021, shows the seized Vietnamese-flagged oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman. (Revolutionary Guard via AP, File)
This frame grab from a video released by Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard on November 3, 2021, shows the seized Vietnamese-flagged oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman. (Revolutionary Guard via AP, File)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Satellite tracking data and other signals on Wednesday suggested a Vietnamese oil tanker earlier seized by Iran had been freed by the Islamic Republic, ending the latest maritime confrontation involving Tehran amid stalled negotiations over its tattered nuclear deal with world powers.

The Sothys left a position off Iran’s Bandar Abbas port and had reached international waters in the nearby Gulf of Oman early Wednesday, the data analyzed by The Associated Press from MarineTraffic.com showed. The vessel appeared anchored there, but there was no information about its crew.

Iran did not acknowledge releasing the vessel and its mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Vietnamese officials could not be reached for comment, though its officials earlier acknowledged trying to obtain more information about the seizure from Iran.

The US Navy’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Iran’s powerful paramilitary Revolutionary Guard troops on Oct. 24 took control of the MV Sothys, a vessel that analysts suspect of trying to transfer sanctioned Iranian crude oil to Asia. US forces had monitored the seizure but ultimately didn’t take action as the vessel sailed into Iranian waters.

Iran later celebrated its capture of the vessel in dramatic footage aired on state television, the day before the 42nd anniversary of the 1979 seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran.

The Sothys had been on the radar of United Against a Nuclear Iran, a New York-based advocacy group long suspicious of the Islamic Republic. In a letter dated Oct. 11 addressed to the Vietnam Maritime Administration, the group said its analysis of satellite photos showed the Sothys received a ship-to-ship transfer of oil in June from an oil tanker called the Oman Pride.

The USTreasury identified the Oman Pride in August as being used to transport Iranian oil as part of a smuggling scheme to enrich the Guard’s expeditionary Quds Force. That Iranian oil ends up being sold into East Asia, the Treasury alleged, without identifying a specific country.

Iran’s seizure of the Sothys would be the latest in a string of hijackings and explosions to roil the Gulf of Oman, which sits near the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a fifth of all traded oil passes.

The US Navy blamed Iran for a series of limpet mine attacks on vessels that damaged tankers in 2019, as well as for a fatal drone attack on an Israeli-linked oil tanker that killed two European crew members earlier this year. Just a few months ago, Iranian hijackers stormed and briefly captured a Panama-flagged asphalt tanker off the United Arab Emirates.

Tehran denies carrying out the attacks, but a wider shadow war between Iran and the West has played out in the region’s volatile waters since then-President Donald Trump withdrew the US from Iran’s nuclear deal in 2018 and imposed crushing sanctions on the country.

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