Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benítez insisted Friday that “a large number” of the Venezuelan-Iranian crew of a grounded plane held in Buenos Aires since June 8 have links to “international terrorism.”
In an extraordinary claim, the Paraguayan leader also alleged that one crew member had travelled to Cuba to undergo cosmetic surgery and “change his face.”
"Paraguayan intelligence did a great job in determining the dangerousness of that flight. Since Paraguay informed and alerted the authorities, they were able to make enquiries and we saw that a large part of the crew [made up of Iranians and Venezuelans] had links to international terrorism," Abdo claimed at a press conference.
Asked if he feared reprisals from Iran as a response to his allegation, Abdo Benítez said that “we are going to continue, no matter what countries they are from.”
The president said he was not concerned about the letter of protest submitted by the Iranian government accusing Paraguay of responding to an "anti-Iranian approach by the US authorities and the Zionist regime” – a reference to Israel.
“This is not an issue against any country. The fight is against international crime and terrorism,” he declared.
The president reiterated his willingness to maintain bilateral relations with all countries, including Iran.
‘Change his face’
The Paraguayan leader then said that one of the Boeing 747’s crew members had "even had an operation to change his face in Cuba” – an allegation he admitted is like something out of “a film.”
Paraguay's intelligence service have previously linked one of the Iranian crew members to the Al Quds Force, the elite force of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, which is classified as a terrorist organisation by the United States.
The Paraguayan government is investigating the aircraft, which landed on May 13 in Ciudad del Este, 330 kilometres east of Asunción, and was cleared for take-off three days later carrying a cargo of Paraguayan cigarettes bound for Aruba, in the Caribbean off the coast of Venezuela.
Having departed from Mexico, the Boeing 747 arrived in Argentina on June 6 with a cargo of auto parts it had been hired to deliver. Unable to refuel in Buenos Aires, it attempted to travel to Uruguay on June 8, but was refused entry by the Uruguayan authorities and had to return to Ezeiza International Airport on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.
The plane is currently under judicial investigation, and its crew of 14 Venezuelans and five Iranians are banned from leaving the country.
The aircraft belongs to Emtrasur, a subsidiary of the Venezuelan company Conviasa, which is under sanctions by the US Treasury Department. It was bought a year ago from the Iranian airline Mahan Air.