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Iran agrees to release crew of seized South Korea tanker

Iran agrees to release crew of seized South Korea tanker
Iran's Revolutionary Guards captured the MT Hankuk Chemi on Jan. 4, citing pollution at sea. The ship's crew is to be released after weeks of negotiations between Tehran and Seoul. File Photo by Tasnim News Agency/EPA-EFE

Feb. 2 (UPI) -- Iran has agreed to release the crew of a South Korea-flagged tanker less than a month after Tehran's Revolutionary Guards captured the MT Hankuk Chemi in the Strait of Hormuz.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said Tuesday that Iran would allow all crew members to leave the country eventually as part of "humanitarian measures."

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Some crew members may need to initially stay behind to "maintain" the ship, according to South Korean television network KBS.

Iran's decision to free the crew of five South Koreans, 11 Myanmarese, two Vietnamese and two Indonesians, comes after weeks of negotiations between Seoul and Tehran.

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Iran has denied the ship was seized in response to a South Korean decision to freeze Tehran's assets in two South Korean bank accounts, estimated at $7 billion.

But Iran also has held talks about opening a new bank South Korean bank account that could free some of the funds for humanitarian use, including a COVID-19 vaccine, according to South Korean press reports.

A South Korean foreign ministry said late Tuesday that Seoul can confirm agreement for the crew's release, which was based on "humanitarian considerations" and "friendly relations" between the two countries, according to KBS.

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The South Korean source also said the settlement came after Seoul's Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun spoke by phone to his Iranian counterpart, Abbas Araghchi, on Tuesday. Discussions are also ongoing about crew members who may initially need to stay behind, the report said.

On Tuesday, Khatibzadeh said the "crew members arrested for environmental pollution in the Persian Gulf" were being released at the "request of the South Korean government."

South Korea froze Iran's assets in 2018 after the Trump administration unveiled sanctions against Tehran and former President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

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The new U.S. administration has declined to lift sanctions, but President Joe Biden has also signaled a desire to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, signed during the Obama administration.

Iran's foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the Obama-era nuclear deal could prevail if the two sides "coordinate," CNN reported Monday.

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