After an unplanned stop in Argentina lasting four months, the five remaining crew-members of the Venezuelan cargo plane detained since June at Ezeiza International Airport have left the country.
The five – Iranians Gholamreza Ghasemi, Abdolbaset Mohammadi and Saeid Valizadeh and Venezuelans Víctor Manuel Pérez Gómez and Mario Arraga Urdaneta – departed Buenos Aires on Monday on a flight bound for Venezuela, the latest development in an international judicial and diplomatic saga.
All were part of the group of 19 crew-members who staffed the Boeing 747 cargo plane owned by Venezuelan firm Emtrasur, which has now been held at a hangar at Ezeiza Airport for more than four months.
The 14 other crew members had been granted release in September, but last Friday Federal Judge Federico Villena (Lomas de Zamora) determined in a ruling that there was no basis to prosecute the remaining five, who had been under investigation for alleged terrorism links.
Prior to release they were summoned to court to receive notification of the judge’s ruling and to establish an address and representatives in Argentina for legal matters. The case is not closed, with Villena awaiting the results of enquiries related to the financial, commercial and banking activities of those under investigation.
Tasnim News, a semi-official news agency of the government in Tehran, reported Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Nasser Kanaani as saying that all of the Iranian crew freed after “129 days of diplomatic efforts” were “on their way to Iran.”
Refuelling and refusal
The Emtrasur Boeing 747 arrived in Argentina on June 6 from Mexico with a Venezuelan-Iranian crew and a cargo of auto parts to supply international manufacturer Volkswagen.
Unable to refuel in Buenos Aires due to US sanctions, the plane left for Uruguay on June 8, but was refused entry by the Uruguayan authorities and had to return to Argentina's Ezeiza International Airport, on the outskirts of the capital.
An investigation was then opened by the courts, which quickly enforced banning orders on the crew, detaining them at a hotel.
In mid-August, Judge Villena granted a US request to seize the Boeing 747 in response to a Columbia District Court order that US export control laws were "violated" when the aircraft was sold.
The aircraft belongs to Emtrasur, a subsidiary of the Venezuelan Conviasa, which is under sanctions from the US Treasury Department. It was bought from the Iranian airline Mahan Air, which the United States has accused of links to the Revolutionary Guards.
The Iranian connection is sensitive for Argentina, which has issued warrants for a number of current and former Iranian leaders for the 1994 terrorist attack against the AMIA Jewish centre that left 85 dead and some 300 injured.
Ghasemi, one of the Iranian crew members granted release, has been linked by the Paraguayan intelligence services to the Al Quds Force, an elite group of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards classified as a terrorist organisation by the United States.
Caracas has repeatedly protested against the plane's seizure and alongside Tehran has demanded the crew's release. Iran insists the plane is "completely legal" and has accused the US of a "propaganda operation."
Before its arrival in Argentina, the plane had been in Paraguay in May, from where it took a shipment of cigarettes to the Caribbean island of Aruba, according to its manifest.