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Syria-bound oil tanker carrying Iranian crude is seized off Gibraltar

Johnny Bugeja

Gibraltar port and law enforcement officers, assisted by British special forces, last night boarded and seized a supertanker reportedly carrying Iranian crude oil bound for Syria in breach of EU sanctions.

The Panama-flag very large crude carrier Grace 1, which was carrying two million barrels of crude oil, was boarded 2.5 miles off Gibraltar just before 2am on Thursday morning.

The vessel and its cargo have been detained, the Gibraltar Government said in a statement.

The Gibraltar authorities said they had information giving “reasonable grounds” to believe the vessel was acting in breach of European Union sanctions against Syria.

“In fact, we have reason to believe that the Grace 1 was carrying its shipment of crude oil to the Banyas Refinery in Syria,” said Gibraltar’s Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, in a statement issued in the early hours of Thursday.

“That refinery is the property of an entity that is subject to European Union sanctions against Syria.”

The UK's Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said the swift action by the authorities on the Rock and the Royal Marines would deny valuable resources to Bashar al Assad's "murderous regime" in Syria.

The marines were brought in to use their specialist boarding skills to help ensure the Royal Gibraltar Police could gain access to the tanker at sea.

Royal Marines from 42 Commando were involved in the operation and no shots were fired.

Undated handout photo issued by the MOD of an image of the supertanker Grace 1. A detachment of Royal Marines was involved in an operation to seize the supertanker suspected of carrying oil destined for Bashar Assad's Syrian regime. Photo: MOD/PA Wire

Handout photo issued by the MOD of an image of the supertanker Grace 1. A detachment of Royal Marines was involved in an operation to seize the supertanker suspected of carrying oil destined for Bashar Assad's Syrian regime. Photo: MOD/PA Wire

The first marines onto the vessel descended on ropes from a Royal Navy Wildcat helicopter, while others were in rigid-hulled inflatable boats.

Around 16 armed Royal Gibraltar Police officers were also involved in the mission, including one who was helicoptered onto the deck of the ship during the early stages of the police-led operation.

Customs officers also later boarded the vessel, with around 60 people in total involved in the operation.

Downing Street welcomed the operation and said it sent a clear signal about the sanctions regime.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "We welcome this firm action to enforce EU sanctions against the Syrian regime and commend those Gibraltarian authorities involved in successfully carrying out this morning's operation."

"This sends a clear message that violation of the sanctions is unacceptable."

Photo by David Parody

Photo by David Parody

Spain's Foreign Minister, Josep Borrell, said Spain had been aware of the operation, which happened in British waters that Madrid claims are Spanish.

"Naturally we were aware of this operation," Mr Borrell told reporters.

The Spanish minister, who was nominated this week as the candidate for the EU's top foreign policy job, claimed Guardia Civil vessels had been "guarding the area".

The Chronicle understands that a single Spanish vessel monitored the operation and was stationed outside British waters at the time.

Commenting on the boarding operation, Mr Borrell added "we are studying the circumstances in which it happened."

"It was a demand by the United States to the United Kingdom and we are looking into how it affects our sovereignty because it happened in, what we understand, are Spanish waters," he said.

The Gibraltar Government did not confirm the origin of the tanker’s cargo but the specialist maritime publication Lloyd’s List reported earlier this week that it was Iranian crude.

Photo by David Parody

Photo by David Parody

According to Lloyd’s List, the ship sailed around the Cape of Good Hope after loading around mid-April off Iran and spending time at anchor in two different locations in waters off the United Arab Emirates.

Graphic showing the voyage of the Grace 1, according to data from Lloyd's List Intelligence

Graphic showing the voyage of the Grace 1, according to data from Lloyd's List Intelligence

Mapping data provided by Refinitiv Eikon also indicates that the ship sailed from Iran.

If the cargo is confirmed to be Iranian crude, its attempted delivery to Syria could also be a violation of U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil exports.

The mapping data shows the ship has sailed a longer route around the southern tip of Africa instead of via Egypt's Suez Canal.

The Grace 1 was documented as loading fuel oil in Iraq in December, although the Iraqi port did not list it as being in port and its tracking system was switched off.

The tanker reappeared near Iran's port of Bandar Assaluyeh fully loaded.

On Thursday, the vessel was boarded while carrying out an off-port-limits logistics stop in British Gibraltar territorial waters, where it had been due to collect food and goods while transiting past the Rock.

Late Wednesday, the Gibraltar Government published regulations and a notice to enforce those sanctions against the vessel and its cargo.

The Chief Minister also gave a direction requiring the Captain of the Port, assisted by the Royal Gibraltar Police and Customs, to take control of the Grace 1.

“With my consent, our port and law enforcement agencies sought the assistance of the Royal Marines in carrying out this operation,” Mr Picardo said.

“As the sanctions being enforced are established by the EU, I have written this morning to the Presidents of the European Commission and Council, setting out the details of the sanctions which we have enforced.”

“I want to thank the brave men and women of the Royal Marines, the Royal Gibraltar Police, Her Majesty's Customs Gibraltar and the Gibraltar Port Authority, for their work in securing the detention of this vessel and its cargo.”

"Be assured that Gibraltar remains safe, secure and committed to the international, rules-based, legal order.”

The UK Government's Foreign Office said in a statement: "We welcome this firm action by the Gibraltarian authorities, acting to enforce the EU Syria Sanctions regime."

At 3.20pm on Thursday, a spokesman for the Gibraltar Government confirmed that a police investigation is ongoing and that officers are on board the vessel interviewing its crew as witnesses.

The Grace 1 had a crew of 28 seafarers, mostly of Indian nationality but including Ukrainians and Pakistanis too.

Customs officers are also on board searching the vessel, which remains at anchor off the east side of the Rock.

MAIN PHOTO: Johnny Bugeja

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been corrected. An earlier version of this story stated wrongly that the Grace 1 was being guarded at anchor by the Royal Navy's survey vessel HMS Echo. While Echo is operating in British waters off Gibraltar at present, it was not involved in this operation.