The United States said on Friday it had confiscated four Iranian fuel shipments that had been bound for Venezuela, disrupting a key supply line for both Tehran and Caracas as they defied US sanctions.
US President Donald Trump said Iran should not be sending cargoes to Venezuela and added that the seized shipments were bound for Houston, Texas, and suggested they may have already arrived.
“They’re going to Houston. And, they’re there,” Trump told a White House news conference. “We’re moving them, and moved, to Houston.”
The US Justice Department said the seized cargo was now in US custody “with the assistance of foreign partners,” adding that the amount confiscated from four tankers was about 1.116 million barrels of fuel, making it the largest-ever US seizure of Iranian fuel.
The US State Department credited its outgoing special envoy for Iran for the seizure operation.
“Our diplomacy, led by Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook, was able to both halt these shipments and assist the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security in executing a US seizure order,” it said in a statement.
Neither the Justice Department nor the State Department specify when, where or how the seizure took place. The latter also did not disclose what steps Hook, whose resignation was announced earlier this week, took to secure the seizure.
The Wall Street Journal reported late on Friday that US threats of legal action and sanctions forced Greek shipowners to surrender Iranian fuel to the US government in recent days.
The report, which cited people familiar with the confiscation, said that the operation took place in international waters without the physical presence of any US authorities or the assistance of any foreign government.
Venezuela had already paid for the fuel and hence Iran will not lose any revenue from the confiscation, the newspaper reported.
In July 2019, Hook had sent emails to the captain of a British-flagged oil tanker that was briefly seized by Iran in the Gulf, saying the Trump administration was offering him several million dollars to steer the tanker to a country that would impound it on behalf of Washington.
The United States has imposed sanctions on both countries to choke oil exports and deprive them of their main source of revenue in its bid to see the ouster of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and change the behavior of Iran’s government.
It has also threatened to sanction any ship owners and vessels involved in oil trade with Tehran and Caracas.
Tensions between Iran and the United States increased last year following a series of incidents involving shipping in and near the Middle East Gulf.
US prosecutors filed a lawsuit in July to seize the gasoline aboard the four tankers, and a judge subsequently issued a warrant for seizure. Legal sources previously told Reuters that the cargoes could not be seized until they were in US territorial waters.
The owners of the four vessels agreed to have the fuel transferred so it could be shipped to the United States, a US government source said on Thursday. The warrant only covered the cargoes, not the vessels.
The owners of the ships targeted by the US legal action agreed to transfer their cargo to vessels owned by Greece’s Eurotankers and Denmark’s Maersk, which are now heading to Houston, the WSJ reported, citing sources.
The four tankers that initially carried the cargoes were the Liberia-flagged Bella, Bering, Pandi and Luna. They are owned and managed by companies controlled by Greece-based firms Vienna LTD and Palermo SA.
Vienna and Palermo did not reply to requests for comment.
The Justice Department said that, following the seizure, Iran’s navy forcibly boarded an unrelated ship in an apparent attempt to recover the seized petroleum, and added that the US military’s Central Command published a video of it on Thursday.
Hook is set to formally leave his post within several weeks, a source familiar with the matter said and after his departure, US Special Envoy for Venezuela Elliot Abrams will be adding the Iran brief to his duties.
Uzbeks refuse to return military aircraft flown from Afghanistan last year
Uzbekistan authorities say dozens of aircraft flown into their country in August last year, during the collapse of the former government, belong to the United States and will not be returned to the interim government in Kabul.
Afghan air force personnel flew almost 50 helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft to Uzbekistan in mid-August as former president Ashraf Ghani fled the country and Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) forces took control.
Several more aircraft and Black Hawk helicopters were also taken to neighboring Tajikistan.
The IEA has however repeatedly requested that these aircraft are returned to Afghanistan.
But in a recent interview with VOA, Ismatulla Irgashev, a senior presidential adviser, said the aircraft would not be going back to Kabul.
“The U.S. government paid for them,” said Irgashev, his nation’s most senior diplomat dealing with Afghan matters. “It funded the previous Afghan government. So, we believe it is totally up to Washington how to deal with them.
“We’ve kept this military equipment in agreement with the U.S. and have told the Taliban (IEA) so.”
Little has been said since about the issue, in part because of the sensitivity of the issue in Uzbek-Afghan relations and the reluctance of officials on all sides to discuss it, VOA reported.
But U.S. defense officials confirmed to VOA that both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have no plans to give the aircraft to the IEA.
Blinken and Austin visit Kyiv; announce assistance package to Ukraine
The United States announced new military assistance for Ukraine and a renewed diplomatic push in the war-ravaged nation as President Joe Biden’s secretary of state and Pentagon chief completed a secrecy-shrouded trip to Kyiv.
In the highest-level American visit to the capital since Russia invaded in late February, top envoy Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told Ukraine’s president, Volodomyr Zelenskyy, and his advisers that the U.S. would provide more than $300 million in foreign military financing and had approved a $165 million sale of ammunition, the Associated Press reported.
They also said Biden would soon announce his nominee to be ambassador to Ukraine and that American diplomats who left Ukraine before the war would start returning to the country this coming week. The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv will remain closed for the moment.
Austin and Blinken announced a total of $713 million in foreign military financing for Ukraine and 15 allied and partner countries; some $322 million is earmarked for Kyiv. The remainder will be split among NATO members and other nations that have provided Ukraine with critical military supplies since the war with Russia began, officials said.
U.S. officials said they believed the new assistance would satisfy at least some of the Ukrainians’ urgent pleas for more help. New artillery, including howitzers, continues to be delivered at a rapid pace to Ukraine’s military, which is being trained on its use in neighboring countries, the officials said.
UN chief heading to Turkey ahead of Moscow, Kyiv visits
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will visit Ankara before heading to Moscow next week to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and then to Ukraine for talks with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a UN statement said on Saturday.
Guterres will visit the Turkish capital on Monday, where he will be received by President Tayyip Erdogan, the statement said.
The UN aid chief, Martin Griffiths, said on April 18 that Turkey was a valuable host for humanitarian talks between Ukraine and Russia.
Eri Kaneko, Guterres’ associate spokesperson, told a news briefing on Friday that Guterres would head to Moscow on Tuesday and meet Putin as well as have a working meeting and lunch with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, hoping to discuss what can be done to bring peace to Ukraine, Reuters reported.
The United Nations also said on Friday that Guterres would meet with Zelenskiy on Thursday, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and staff at UN agencies to discuss the scaling up of humanitarian assistance efforts.
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