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Two more arrests in Grace 1 investigation as Iran calls for supertanker to be released

Johnny Bugeja

Police in Gibraltar have arrested two more officers on the supertanker Grace 1, which was detained last week on suspicion of breaching EU sanctions against Syria.
The development on Friday followed the arrest of the vessel's captain and chief officer on Thursday and came as Iran again called for the vessel to be released.
All four men are assisting police with inquiries and none has been charged at this stage. All are Indian nationals and have been offered legal and consular assistance.
Late Friday, police said all had been released on bail with conditions pending the outcome of the investigation.
The latest arrests came at the same time as Chief Minister Fabian Picardo was making a statement in Parliament on the detention of the supertanker Grace 1, which Gibraltar authorities and British Royal Marines seized last week on suspicion it was breaking European sanctions by taking oil to Syria.
Mr Picardo said Gibraltar took the decision to seize an Iranian tanker last week solely because the ship was in breach of EU sanctions and not on the request of any other country.
"The decisions of Her Majesty's government of Gibraltar were taken totally independently, based on breaches of existing law and not at all based on extraneous political considerations," Mr Picardo said.
"These important decisions about breaches of our laws were not decisions taken at the political behest or instruction of any other state or third party."
Mr Picardo confirmed that the vessel was loaded with 2.1m barrels of light crude oil.
He did not comment on the origin of the oil, although Iran has confirmed that it was Iranian crude and has reacted angrily to the ship's detention.
Iran has demanded that Britain release the ship and denies that it was taking oil to Syria in violation of sanctions. The affair has led to an increase in tension in the Gulf, with Britain saying on Thursday that it fended off Iranian ships that tried to block a British tanker.
Tehran blames the United States for arranging to have its ship seized. Washington has imposed sanctions against Iran with the aim of halting all Iranian oil exports. European countries do not have sanctions against Iran, but have had them in place against Iran's ally Syria since 2011.
"All relevant decisions in respect of this matter were taken only as a direct result of the Government of Gibraltar having reasonable grounds to believe the vessel was acting in breach of established EU sanctions against Syria," Mr Picardo insisted yesterday.
"We will not allow Gibraltar to be used or knowingly or unknowingly complicit in the breach of EU or other international sanctions."
He added: "The provenance and origin of the cargo aboard the Grace 1 has not been relevant at all to Gibraltar's actions."
"We have no desire, right or obligation to do anything other than enforce the existing sanctions against the Syrian regime, as we are bound and legally required to do by EU regulation 36/2012. Because these are not our sanctions, but the EU's sanctions."
Mr Picardo said the consequences of the actions taken by Gibraltar could be challenged and tested in the courts by any party alleging a claim to the vessel and its cargo.
The latest developments came just hours after Iran on Friday called on Britain to immediately release the oil tanker.
"This is a dangerous game and has consequences ... the legal pretexts for the capture are not valid ... the release of the tanker is in all countries' interest," Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi told state news agency IRNA.
Iran has warned of reciprocal measures if the tanker is not released.
Britain said on Thursday that three Iranian vessels tried to block a British-owned tanker passing through the Strait of Hormuz, which controls the flow of Middle East oil to the world, but backed off when confronted by a Royal Navy warship.
Iran denied that its vessels had done any such thing.
Tension between Iran and the West has increased a week after Britain seized the tanker and London said the British Heritage, operated by oil company BP, had been approached in the strait between Iran and the Arabian peninsula.
Mr Mousavi accused Britain of seizing the tanker under US pressure.
"Such illegal measures could increase tensions in the Persian Gulf," he told IRNA.
Yesterday the UK acted to bring forward plans to dispatch Type 45 Destroyer HMS Duncan to the region to relieve Montrose, according to PA.
HMS Duncan, currently in the Black Sea, will relieve HMS Montrose in the Gulf so the Type 23 frigate can undergo planned maintenance and crew changes, the UK Government confirmed.
A spokeswoman said: "This will ensure that the UK alongside international partners can continue to support freedom of navigation for vessels transiting through this vital shipping lane."
HMS Duncan, a Type 45 air defence destroyer, is considered to be one of the most advanced warships in the world, according to the Royal Navy.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Britain wants to "de-escalate" the "serious" situation and that sending HMS Duncan was "about our responsibility to do everything we can to protect British shipping".
He told BBC Radio 4's World At One programme: "We have a responsibility to protect British shipping and, with our allies, to protect the waterways and seaways of the world, so we have to react according to the threats that we face."
"But this is not an Iran-specific issue - notwithstanding the broader tensions in the region - this is about Syria and about a breach of the sanctions against Syria, which of course is a country that Iran is active in."
A Downing Street spokeswoman spoke of the UK Government's concerns in the region.
"We are concerned about the threats that they are making to disrupt shipping in the area and we have been urging them to de-escalate the situation in the region," she told a Westminster briefing.