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Police in Gibraltar arrest Grace 1 captain and chief officer

Johnny Bugeja

Police in Gibraltar have arrested the captain and chief officer of the supertanker Grace 1 on suspicion of breaching EU sanctions on Syria, a spokesman for the Royal Gibraltar Police confirmed on Thursday.
The two men, both Indian nationals, were arrested on Thursday afternoon and have been interviewed under caution by police and Customs officers.
Both men have been granted access to legal and consular representation.
Neither has been charged at this stage and investigations continue.
The RGP said the arrests followed "…a protracted search of the vessel where documents and electronic devices have been seized and examined."
Both men were arrested in relation to suspected breaches of European Union Regulations 36/2012 concerning restrictive measures in view of the situation in Syria, the RGP said in a statement.
The Grace 1 was detained in British waters off Gibraltar last week following a police-led operation supported by British Royal Marines.
Authorities in Gibraltar suspect the vessel was shipping crude oil to Syria in breach of EU sanctions.
Officials in Gibraltar have made no comment on the origin of the oil but Iran has confirmed it is Iranian crude and has reacted angrily to the detention.
Sources in Gibraltar close to the investigation insist the timing of the arrests had nothing to do with tensions in the Strait of Hormuz and were dictated by the pace of the investigation.
Police and Customs officers had spent a week searching the vessel and interviewing its crew as witnesses.
But the arrests come after a string of warnings from Iran over the seizure of its vessel and just hours after reports that a Royal Navy warship fended off three Iranian vessels that tried to block a British-owned tanker passing through the Strait of Hormuz.
On Thursday morning, a week after the detention, officials in London said the British Heritage tanker operated by oil company BP had been approached in the strait, the main outlet for Middle Eastern oil.
"HMS Montrose was forced to position herself between the Iranian vessels and British Heritage and issue verbal warnings to the Iranian vessels, which then turned away," a British government spokesman said in a statement. It urged Iran to "de-escalate the situation in the region".
The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "We have long-standing maritime presence in the Gulf."
"We are continuously monitoring the security situation there and are committed to maintaining freedom of navigation in accordance with international law."
But Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif dismissed as "worthless" the allegation that Iran sought to block the ship.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard also denied the allegations, saying if it had received orders to seize any ships it would have done so immediately.
In a statement carried by the semi-official Fars news agency, the Revolutionary Guard's navy insisted there had been no clashes with foreign ships, "especially British boats".
Sky News later reported that Britain was now urging all British-flagged ships to go to a higher state of security when passing through the strait.
Earlier this week, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani said Britain would face "consequences" over the seizure of tanker.
"You (Britain) are the initiator of insecurity and you will realise the consequences later," President Rouhani said after a cabinet meeting, in remarks carried by Iranian state television.
"Now you are so hopeless that, when one of your tankers wants to move in the region, you have to bring your frigates (to escort it) because you are scared."
"Then why do you commit such acts (seizure)? You should instead allow navigation to be safe."
Other Iranian officials have made similar statements, and some figures have been quoted threatening retaliation against British ships.