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Gibraltar 'not pressured' over tankers bound for Venezuela with Iranian fuel

Archive image of the Iranian tanker Grace 1 after it was seized in Gibraltar last year. Photo by Jon Nazca/Reuters

Gibraltar was alerted to the transit of ships carrying Iranian fuel to Venezuela amid tensions with the US over sanctions, but was not pressured to act in any way, the Gibraltar Government said on Saturday.

Officials in Gibraltar monitored the ships as they sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar earlier this month, but none of the vessels entered British waters around the Rock, No.6 Convent Place said.

The government was reacting after the Reuters news agency reported that the Trump administration had quietly warned foreign governments, seaports, shipping companies and insurers that they could face stiff U.S. sanctions if they aided the tanker flotilla.

Elliott Abrams, Washington’s special representative on Venezuela, told Reuters the pressure campaign targeting heavily sanctioned U.S. foes Iran and Venezuela was being waged “…to be sure everyone recognises this would be a very dangerous transaction to assist.”

“We've alerted the shipping community around the world, ship owners, ship captains, ship insurers, and we've alerted ports along the way between Iran and Venezuela,” Mr Abrams said in an interview.

He said diplomatic warnings, known as demarches, had been sent privately to governments “around the world”.

According to Reuters, a person familiar with the matter said among them was Gibraltar, which was situated on the tankers' route. A U.S. official said various countries had been asked to deny them port services.

On Saturday, a spokesman for the Gibraltar Government told the Chronicle the ships had been monitored as they sailed through the strait.

“The government was not put under any type pressure by any party at all at any time,” the spokesman said.

"We were made aware of the routing these vessels were taking.”

“We monitored their passage near Gibraltar, but they never entered British Gibraltar territorial waters and did not contract any services in Gibraltar or from any Gibraltar service providers.”

The tankers would have been unlikely to seek services in Gibraltar in any event.

Last year, the Iranian supertanker Grace 1 was seized in Gibraltar on suspicion it was shipping 2.1 million barrels of crude oil to Syria in breach of EU sanctions.

The seizure, which was supported by UK Royal Marines, sparked an international stand-off between Tehran and the west that took months to defuse. It was the first time EU sanctions had been enforced this way.

The latest developments reflect deepening ties between Venezuela and Iran, both OPEC members with fraught relations with the United States.

The Venezuelan navy on Thursday escorted a fourth tanker bringing Iranian fuel through its waters to the fuel-starved country, defying U.S. threats of “measures” in response to the shipments. At least one other tanker was en route in the Atlantic.

The government of Venezuelan Socialist President Nicolas Maduro has flaunted the tankers’ arrivals to show it remains unbowed by pressure. The United States, which seeks Maduro’s ousting, has called it a “distraction.”

Two other tankers, the Liberia-flag Bella and Bering, passed through the Suez Canal in early May, according to Refinitiv Eikon data cited by Reuters. Sources familiar with the matter told the news agency United States was looking for ways to prevent them from reaching Venezuela.

“I do not think that you will find ship owners and insurers and captains and crews willing to engage in these transactions in the future,” Mr Abrams told Reuters.

He predicted the fuel delivered to Venezuela would only last a few weeks and mostly be siphoned off by Maduro loyalists. Shortages have grown acute due to U.S. sanctions against Venezuela under Maduro, who has overseen an economic collapse.

The United States this month issued a global maritime advisory, giving guidance to the shipping industry on how to avoid sanctions related to Iran, North Korea and Syria.

Washington has appeared willing to rely on economic measures instead of using its beefed-up naval presence in the Caribbean to block the tankers. Iran and Venezuela have warned against U.S. military force.

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