Thursday, April 18, 2024

LATIN AMERICA | 13-02-2024 17:42

After 20 months at Ezeiza, United States seizes Venezuela’s ‘Iranian’ plane

Maduro government condemns “brazen theft” of Emtrasur aircraft that was detained at Argentina’s Ezeiza airport for close to two years; United States finally seizes plane, which Washington says was part of an irregular transfer with Iran.

A Venezuelan aircraft grounded at Ezeiza International Airport for 20 months in a geopolitical and judicial tug of war has finally left Argentina.

The Boeing 747-300 cargo plane, owned by Venezuelan state firm Emrasur and previously owned by an Iranian firm, departed early Monday morning. It brought a lengthy trilateral diplomatic saga involving the United States government to a close.

In a statement issued by the US Justice Department on Monday, Washington confirmed it had “completed” the seizure of the aircraft with the help of the Argentine authorities, a move that met with anger from Iran and Venezuela. 

It did not provide the plane’s new location, though US media reports say it will be scrapped after flying to Miami.

The aircraft was initially detained in June 2022 by authorities in Argentina, acting upon a request from the US courts. 

The cargo plane was sold in October 2021 to Emtrasur, a subsidiary of Venezuelan state airline Conviasa, by Iran's Mahan Air – a transaction which the United States government said contravened its sanctions against both countries.

As part of the investigation, the plane’s 19-strong crew were also briefly detained.

Composed of Venezuelans and Iranians, the US government initially alleged that at least one individual had links to the Al Quds Force, a group of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

All 19 were later freed by the courts after the courts in Argentina determined they had committed no crime.



The departure of the aircraft brings to an end more than 20 months of diplomatic and judicial back and forth involving four nations. 

The cargo plane first arrived in Argentina on June 6, 2022 carrying Volkswagen auto parts. Two days later it attempted to fly to Uruguay to refuel, but was dramatically prevented from landing by the government in Montevideo

Forced to return to Argentina, the cargo plane arrived at Ezeiza International Airport on the outskirts of Buenos Aires on June 8, where it was immediately immobilised by court order.

An Argentine court ordered the detention not just of the plane, but of its 19-strong crew, made up of Venezuelans and Iranians. 

Last month, the Venezuelan government – headed by Nicolás Maduro – accused Argentina of submitting to the "special interests" of the United States as rumours of the plane’s imminent departure ramped up.

Foreign Minister Yván Gil on Monday said he "categorically" rejected Argentine federal judge Federico Villena’s ruling releasing the plane, describing it as "servile to imperial interests."

The Venezuelan official stated on his account on the social network X (formerly Twitter) that the judge was "trying to consummate the theft" of the aircraft.

Villena, in concurrence with prosecutor Cecilia Incardona, has adhered to a request originally filed in October 2022 by the US District Court for the District of Columbia, which asked Argentine authorities to seize the aircraft as part of an investigation into possible links to international terrorism.

The aircraft is “subject to forfeiture based on violations of US export control laws related to the unauthorised transfer of the Mahan Air aircraft,” states the US request.

Venezuela’s government condemned the “blatant theft” of the cargo carrier in a statement reacting to news of the seizure.

In a separate statement, Iranian Foreign Minister Nasser Kanaani condemned the “illegal” appropriation of the plane.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran announces its decisive support for the legal and diplomatic efforts of Venezuela in order to regain ownership and access to the possessions and belongings of the country,” it read.


Seizure ‘completed’

In a statement issued by the Justice Department on Monday, US Deputy Attorney General Deputy Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen confirmed that the United States had finally “completed” the “seizure” of the Emtrasur plane.

"The seized aircraft, built in the United States, was transferred by a sanctioned Iranian airline in a transaction that violated US export control laws and directly benefited the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is a terrorist organisation," said Olsen.

The seizure "culminates more than 18 months of planning, coordination and execution by the US government and our Argentine counterparts," added US Attorney Markenzy Lapointe, in the same statement.

"Mahan Air – known for transporting weapons and fighters for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah – violated our export restrictions by selling this aircraft to a Venezuelan cargo airline. It is now the property of the US government," added Matthew S. Axelrod, US assistant secretary for export enforcement.

Citing court documents, Washington said that the plane's captain was "a former commander" of the Qods Force, a branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, as well as "a shareholder and board member of a second sanctioned Iranian airline, Qeshm Fars Air."

According to the US government, Argentine authorities recovered a Mahan Air plane log "documenting the aircraft's flights."

These records confirm "additional violations of US export control laws between February and May 2022 when Emtrasur re-exported the aircraft" between Caracas, Tehran, and Moscow "without US government authorisation," the statement added.


‘Brazen theft’

Venezuela’s government said in a statement Monday that it condemned the “brazen theft” of its property.

"The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela categorically rejects the brazen theft of the Boeing 747-300 aircraft, plate YV 3531, belonging to Empresa de Transporte Aerocargos del Sur (EMTRASUR SA)," the government in Caracas said in a statement shared by Foreign Minister Gil.

The message alleged that the "theft" was a result of “collusion between the governments of the United States of America and the Republic of Argentina."

"They have violated all the norms that regulate civil aeronautics, as well as the commercial, civil and political rights of the aforementioned company, putting at risk the aeronautical security in the region,” it reads.

"The shameful racketeering operation is part of the list of criminal aggressions against the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, which have been applied for more than a decade by the United States," it continues, highlighting the ongoing "seizure of assets and the application of more than 930 illegal sanctions.”

Venezuela’s government confirmed it has filed a formal complaint against Argentina and the United States before the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). 

The communiqué said "the Venezuelan State will exercise all actions to restore justice and achieve the restitution of the aircraft to its legitimate owner.”

"Free and sovereign Venezuela will give a forceful, direct and proportionate response to this attack, for which it will use all available resources within the framework of the national Constitution, diplomacy and international law," Gil warned.



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