ALGECIRAS, SPAIN - British police on Friday were questioning the crew of an Iranian supertanker that was seized at 4 a.m. Thursday in waters near Gibraltar, and which remains anchored close to the eastern shore of what locals refer to as "the Rock."
Gibraltar's supreme court announced it was extending the authority to hold the ship for 14 more days, saying there are "reasonable grounds to believe that the vessel was acting in breach of established of EU sanctions against Syria."
A spokesperson for Gibraltar's government told VOA that an initial order to seize the vessel for up to 72 hours was issued the day before it was boarded by 30 Royal Marines flown in from Britain. The seizure of the 1,000-meter tanker Grace 1 as it stopped at Gibraltar for scheduled reprovisioning bears the hallmarks of a planned military operation aided by satellite and on-ground reconnaissance, as well as special forces.
According to the British Foreign Office, Grace 1 had loaded oil in Iraq that was destined for Syrian refineries sanctioned by the EU. Analysts said the unusual route around Africa and through the Strait of Gibraltar suggests the ship's operators wanted to avoid the shorter route through the Suez Canal, where it could have been more easily subject to inspection and boarding by Egypt.
Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrel told reporters in Brussels the seizure had been requested by the U.S. He said Washington supplied information about the ship's destination and its cargo to the British government, which informed Spain only at the last minute about the planned boarding operation, in what Madrid considers to be its territorial waters.
"Prior to the intervention by British forces, the UK had maintained, through opportune channels, consultations with Spain in which it shared suspicions that Grace 1, which was expected to stop in Gibraltar, transported a cargo of crude whose final destination was Syria, which British forces would act to embargo," according to a Spanish Foreign Ministry statement.
Spanish officials have told VOA the ship was too large to enter Gibraltar's port, so it slowed down to take on provisions from small boats in waters off the Gibraltar coast. That was where the British forces boarded the ship, with Spanish police patrol boats nearby.
Fast launches carrying British marines and Gibraltar police surrounded the vessel as commandos of the Special Boat Squadron roped onto the deck from a helicopter to take control of the bridge and ensure that the ship stopped. Gibraltar residents say they heard unusual noises from a hovering helicopter about 2 a.m.
Police have been interviewing the Grace 1 crew, which consists mainly of Indians but also some Pakistanis and Ukrainians, to determine the vessel's precise instructions. They also hope to gain intelligence on tactics that Iran may be using to skirt international sanctions on its oil exports, according to reports by the Gibraltar broadcasting corporation, which broke the news of the seizure Thursday morning.
An Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commander said in a tweet Friday that Iran should seize a British oil tanker if the Iranian tanker is not released immediately. "If Britain does not release the Iranian oil tanker, it is the authorities' duty to seize a British oil tanker," said Maj. Gen. Mohsen Rezai, according to Reuters.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry said the seizure of the vessel at the request of the United States amounted to an act of "piracy."
Speaking Friday to the BBC, Gibraltar's Chief Minister Fabian Picardo denied reports the British rock colony was under a security alert.