by Brian Reyes
Gibraltar port and law enforcement officers, assisted by British special forces, last night boarded and seized a supertanker reportedly carrying Iranian crude oil bound for Syria in breach of EU sanctions.
The Panama-flag very large crude carrier Grace 1, which was carrying two million barrels of crude oil, was boarded 2.5 miles off Gibraltar just before 2am on Thursday morning.
The vessel and its cargo have been detained, the Gibraltar Government said in a statement.
The Gibraltar authorities said they had information giving “reasonable grounds” to believe the vessel was acting in breach of European Union sanctions against Syria.
“In fact, we have reason to believe that the Grace 1 was carrying its shipment of crude oil to the Banyas Refinery in Syria,” said Gibraltar’s Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, in a statement issued in the early hours of Thursday.
“That refinery is the property of an entity that is subject to European Union sanctions against Syria.”
The Gibraltar Government did not confirm the origin of the tanker’s cargo but the specialist maritime publication Lloyd’s List reported earlier this week that it was Iranian crude.
According to Lloyd’s List, the ship sailed around the Cape of Good Hope after loading around mid-April off Iran and spending time at anchor in two different locations in waters off the United Arab Emirates.
Mapping data provided by Refinitiv Eikon also indicates that the ship sailed from Iran.
If the cargo is confirmed to be Iranian crude, its attempted delivery to Syria could also be a violation of U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil exports.
The mapping data shows the ship has sailed a longer route around the southern tip of Africa instead of via Egypt’s Suez Canal.
The Grace 1 was documented as loading fuel oil in Iraq in December, although the Iraqi port did not list it as being in port and its tracking system was switched off.
The tanker reappeared near Iran’s port of Bandar Assaluyeh fully loaded.
On Thursday, the vessel was boarded while carrying out an off-port-limits logistics stop in British Gibraltar territorial waters, where it had been due to collect food and goods while transiting past the Rock.
Late Wednesday, the Gibraltar Government published regulations and a notice to enforce those sanctions against the vessel and its cargo.
The Chief Minister also gave a direction requiring the Captain of the Port, assisted by the Royal Gibraltar Police and Customs, to take control of the Grace 1.
“With my consent, our port and law enforcement agencies sought the assistance of the Royal Marines in carrying out this operation,” Mr Picardo said.
“As the sanctions being enforced are established by the EU, I have written this morning to the Presidents of the European Commission and Council, setting out the details of the sanctions which we have enforced.”
“I want to thank the brave men and women of the Royal Marines, the Royal Gibraltar Police, Her Majesty’s Customs Gibraltar and the Gibraltar Port Authority, for their work in securing the detention of this vessel and its cargo.”
“Be assured that Gibraltar remains safe, secure and committed to the international, rules-based, legal order.”
The ship is currently anchored off the east side of the Rock.
The UK Government’s Foreign Office said in a statement: “We welcome this firm action by the Gibraltarian authorities, acting to enforce the EU Syria Sanctions regime.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been corrected. An earlier version of this story stated wrongly that the Grace 1 was being guarded at anchor by the Royal Navy’s survey vessel HMS Echo. While Echo is operating in British waters off Gibraltar at present, it was not involved in this operation.