Swedish owner of tanker seized by Iran says crew 'safe'

There are 18 Indian nationals on board the Stena Impero (AFP Photo/-)

Stockholm (AFP) - The Swedish company that owns the UK-flagged oil tanker seized by Iran said Wednesday it had finally been able to contact its crew being held on board and they declared themselves "safe".

Stena Bulk said in a statement that the ship's captain "advised that everyone was safe with good cooperation with the Iranian personnel onboard".

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seized control of the Stena Impero tanker last Friday as it was navigating through an international passage in the middle of the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow chokepoint at the entrance of the Gulf.

The ship has since been held off shore near Iran's southern port of Bandar Abbas.

Iranian officials have given varying reasons for its seizure and continued detention.

Some, such as Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, said it was for breaching maritime regulations.

It has also been variously claimed that its transponder was turned off, it was going the wrong way along a shipping channel or had collided with an unidentified fishing vessel.

Others, such as parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, said it was a tit-for-tat move responding to British commandos seizing an Iranian oil tanker on July 4 as it passed through Gibraltar's waters, under suspicion it was breaking EU sanctions on oil deliveries to Syria.

Iran has hinted it was open to a tanker swap, releasing the Stena Impero in exchange for its tanker, Grace 1, being allowed on its way.

Stena Bulk has been trying for days to have its representatives visit the Stena Impero and see the 23 detained crew members -- who hail from India, Russia, Latvia and the Philippines -- to verify their wellbeing and press for their release.

On Tuesday it insisted in a statement that the vessel was "in compliance with maritime regulations" when it was seized, with transponders functioning and using the right shipping traffic passage. "We can confirm that we are not aware of, and nor is there any evidence of a collision involving the Stena Impero," it said.

- Seeking 'progress' from Iran -

While its representatives have not been able to physically see the crew, Stena Bulk said in its statement Wednesday that it had had "direct communication" with the ship's captain since late Tuesday.

The CEO of Stena Bulk, Erik Hanell, said the company appreciated the ability to speak to the crew remotely and expressed hope "that this is a first sign that we will soon see more positive progress from the Iranian authorities".

Britain has slammed the seizure of the Stena Impero as "state piracy" that threatened freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz.

It has called for a European naval mission to be set up in the Gulf, separate from US patrols, to ensure the safety of shipping there. France has expressed willingness to take part in an "observer" mission, with efforts being made to de-escalate the situation.