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Iran seizes two Greek oil tankers in Gulf raid

Greek foreign ministry says Iranian helicopters landed commandos on two tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, heightening tensions in the region
A handout photo made available by the Iranian Army office on February 17, 2021, shows Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Russian soldiers taking part in a drill simulating taking over a hijacked ship (AFP)

Iran seized two Greek oil tankers in the Gulf on Friday, in what appeared to be retaliation for Athens' assistance in the US confiscation of a Russian-flagged tanker loaded with Iranian oil last month.

"The Revolutionary Guards Navy today seized two Greek tankers for violations in Gulf waters," said a Guards statement, quoted by Iranian state news agency IRNA. It gave no further details and did not say what the alleged violations were.

Athens quickly accused Iran of "piracy". The foreign ministry said Iranian helicopters had landed commandos on the two tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, the world's busiest shipping artery.

One of tankers, the Delta Poseidon, was sailing in international waters at the time, the ministry said.

A spokeswoman for the Athens-based company Polembros identified the second tanker as the Prudent Warrior.

The Greek foreign ministry said the second tanker was near the Iranian coast when seized.

The ministry said nine Greeks were among the crews of the two vessels, but did not give the total number of sailors on board.

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Iran's action against the Greek-flagged tankers marks a sharp escalation in a diplomatic row that has raged since Greece seized a Russian-flagged oil tanker and its Iranian cargo last month.

Iran's foreign ministry demanded earlier on Friday that Greece release the vessel, saying the planned transfer of its cargo to the US was a "clear violation" of international law.

Tehran warned just hours before the seizure of the Greek vessels that it would take "punitive action" against Athens for assisting the US.

Greece on Wednesday confirmed it intended to send the 115,000 tonnes of Iranian oil from the tanker Pegas to the United States at the request of the US Treasury, which oversees the enforcement of US sanctions on Iran.

Iran's foreign ministry summoned the Swiss charge d'affaires, whose country has handled US interests in Iran ever since ties were cut between Tehran and Washington following the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The ministry protested "the US government's pressure and intervention" that led to the seizure of the ship by Greek authorities last month.

Greece said at the time it was enforcing sanctions imposed by the bloc on Russia, following its invasion of Ukraine in February.

Iran accused the United States of a "clear violation of the law of the sea and the relevant international conventions" and "called for the immediate lifting of the seizure of the ship and its cargo".

Friday's confiscation comes as oil prices have skyrocketed, partly on the back of increased political instability stemming from Russia's invasion of Ukraine. It also risks escalating tensions between Tehran and the West as talks on Iran's nuclear programme stall.