DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran has agreed to allow the crew members of a South Korean ship it seized for alleged environmental pollution to leave the country, Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said on Tuesday.
“Following a request by the South Korean government…, the crew of the Korean ship, which was detained on charges of causing environmental pollution in the Persian Gulf, have received permission to leave the country in a humanitarian move by Iran,” Khatibzadeh told state media. The legal case against the vessel and its captain continues, he said.
Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi spoke by telephone with his South Korean counterpart Choi Jong-kun on the release of the crew of 19 and the issue of releasing $7 billion in Iranian funds frozen in South Korea because of U.S. sanctions.
“The two sides…shared the view that the release of the sailors was an important first step to restore trust between the two countries and they will work to resolve the issue of frozen Iranian assets in South Korean banks,” South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
“Choi also said South Korea will do what it can in a speedy manner while discussing consultations with the United States on the issue,” it said.
Iran has denied allegations that the seizure of the tanker and its 20-member crew amounted to hostage-taking, and said it was Seoul that was holding the Iranian funds “hostage”.
The freezing of some $7 billion of Iranian funds is linked to U.S. sanctions which Washington reimposed on Tehran in 2018 after then-President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
Choi held talks in Tehran in early January on the release of the South Korean-flagged MT Hankuk Chemi, which was seized on Jan. 4 by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards near the strategic Strait of Hormuz.
(Reporting by Dubai newsroom and Hyonhee Shin in Seoul; Editing by Mark Heinrich)