DUBAI: The South Korean government said it will send a delegation to Iran “at the earliest possible date” in a bid to secure the release of a tanker seized in the Arabian Gulf, amid tensions surrounding the freezing of Iranian funds in Seoul because of US sanctions.

Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) seized the Korean-flagged MT Hankuk Chemi on Monday, detaining its 20-strong crew near the Strait of Hormuz amid allegations of pollution violations – a claim the ship’s operator rejects.

The MT Hankuk Chemi, which is being held in the port city of Bandar Abbas, was traveling from Saudi Arabia to Fujairah on east coast of the United Arab Emirates.

The international crew of the MT Hankuk Chemi, from Indonesia, Myanmar, South Korea, and Vietnam, are “safe and healthy,” the Yonhap news agency reported, citing the Iranian ambassador to Seoul.

The ship was carrying 7,200 tons of “oil chemical products,” Iranian media quoting the IRGC said, adding that it was “seized due to the repeated infringement of maritime environmental laws,.”

The report said the case “will be handed over to the judicial authorities of the country.”

A South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman also said a planned trip to Tehran by the country’s Deputy Foreign Minister Choi Jong-Kun would still go ahead early next week, Iranian media Radio Farda reported on Wednesday.

The spat comes as Iranian officials push for the release of billions of dollars, earned from oil sales made before Washington tightened sanctions, which are now frozen in South Korean banks.

Iran denies allegations made that the seizure of the ship amounts to a hostage taking situation, the report added.

“If anybody is to be called a hostage taker, it is the South Korean government that has taken our more than $7 billion hostage under a futile pretext,” Ali Rabiei was quoted as telling reporters.

The US State Department had previously demanded the tanker’s immediate release, and accused Iran of threatening “navigational rights and freedoms” in the Arabian Gulf to “extort the international community into relieving the pressure” of economic sanctions, the report added.

South Korea’s defense ministry meanwhile announced that members of the country’s anti-piracy unit had arrived in the area onboard a navy destroyer and are “carrying out a mission to ensure the safety of our nationals,” a spokesman explained.

The ship’s seizure comes as tensions grow in the region during the first anniversary of the assassination of the IRGC’s Major General Qasem Soleimani. 

The US has already flown B-52 bombers over the region and sent a nuclear-powered submarine into the Gulf.

Iran continues to reduce its compliance with the nuclear deal it reached with the US in 2015 under Barack Obama’s presidency, announcing on Jan. 4 that it had resumed 20 percent uranium enrichment at an underground facility.

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