Judicial and police officials were on Thursday night searching a cargo plane owned by Venezuelan airline Emtrasur, which has been held at Ezeiza International Airport since last week, for clues about the intentions of the crew of 14 Venezuelans and five Iranians, whose passports have also been detained.
The search was being carried out on a disused secondary runway at the airport on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, away from public view, at the rear of the air station. An official from Federico Villena's federal court in Lomas de Zamora and members of the Federal Police are taking part in the search.
The operation was ordered by Judge Villena, who asked to thoroughly inspect the plane for documents and traces that could help determine what the crew was doing in Buenos Aires as the mystery surrounding the plane deepened. In addition, Villena has prohibited the plane from leaving the airport.
It is the third search of the aircraft since it touched down in Argentina.
Detentions and searches
The Venezuelan crew of the cargo plane may not leave Argentina, judges ruled this week after their hotel rooms were searched in a probe into possible Iran terror group links.
Police raided the 14 Venezuelan and five Iranian crew members' rooms the day after officials raised suspicions of a link to Iran's Revolutionary Guards, listed as a foreign "terrorist organisation" by the United States.
The Iranian crew had already had their passports temporarily seized, and on Tuesday the Venezuelans had their freedom curtailed after police confiscated mobile phones, computers and documents in the early-morning raid.
They had been on board a Venezuelan Boeing 747 cargo plane reportedly carrying car parts that came in from Mexico to land in Córdoba, Argentina on Monday last week.
The plane then tried to travel to neighbouring Uruguay, but was denied entry and returned to Ezeiza outside Buenos Aires where it has been grounded since last Wednesday.
A judge grounded the plane given a "reasonable suspicion that the reason given for entering [Argentina] might not be true."
On Tuesday, Paraguay said two officials who had authorised the landing of the plane there back in May had been dismissed and two anti-drug agents were under investigation.
Interior Minister Federico González said the plane landed in Paraguay on a "commercial" entry permit with 18 crew – an unusually high number for a cargo flight, according to expert sites.
It spent nearly three days at the Guarani international airport near the borders with Argentina and Brazil before departing on May 16 for the Caribbean island of Aruba with a load of Paraguayan cigarettes.
After it left, "we received a communication that the aircraft is sanctioned by the United States Treasury Department and that seven of the crew members are members of the Al Quds forces [of the Guards] and that the United States has them on a list of terrorists," said the minister.
A Mexican official said Tuesday the plane had arrived in the state of Queretaro on June 4 with four crew members and in full compliance with all protocols. It arrived with a two-day delay due to initial problems with airworthiness, insurance and other certificates as well as "documentation of the crew," Queretaro official Marco Antonio Del Prete told AFP.
After refuelling and loading "industrial goods", the Boeing jet departed from Queretaro on June 5 with authorization for a Caracas-Queretaro-Caracas-Buenos Aires-Caracas flight route, he added.
The biggest piece of mystery surrounding the whole Venzeualan-Irani plane has to do with one of the crew members, Gholamreza Ghasemi Abbas, the aircraft’s pilot.
Ghasemi Abbas is one of five Iranians who had their passports seized after the Venezuelan Boeing 747 cargo plane was grounded in Argentina a week ago.
International analyst Andrei Serbin noted that the Iranian’s name matched that of a member of the Quds Force, the foreign operations arm of Iran's Revolutionary Guards.
The same Ghasemi Abbas was also a director for a cargo airline sanctioned by the United States accused of transporting weapons and military equipment to Syria named Fars Air Qeshm. The information was initially corroborated by Fernández in a radio interview with journalist Jorge Fontevecchia for Radio Perfil on Tuesday, but then immediately disputed by the same government he represents.
Not unknown for his almost immediate flip-flops, the minister noted the following day that there was no evidence to link Ghasemi Abbas to any Iranian military service member and that he appeared to be a namesake, 10 years younger.
Fernández reiterated that one man only “shared” a name with a Quds Force member, nothing more. He added that none of the crew members were on an Interpol red list, and there had been no reason to prevent them from entering Argentina.
Using open source intelligence (OSINT) techniques, Serbin disputed that claim, revealing Iranian journalistic articles directly linking Ghasemi Abbas with the Revolutionary Guard along with conclusive photographs – the same conclusion that Argentina’s security forces were reaching, according to La Nación and despite attempts by Fernández and recently-appointed spy chief, Agustín Rossi to counter.
On Thursday, it was the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires that confirmed Ghasemi Abbas’ identity: “Said aircraft, which until very recently was used by Iranian firm Mahan Air, landed in Argentina carrying a group of Iranian officials, among them a high-ranking executive of airline Qeshm Fars Air,” which “is dedicated to the trafficking of weapons and people that operate for the Quds Force, which is sanctioned by the United States for being involved in terrorist activities.”
Iran slams ‘propaganda’
Iran hit back earlier Monday, saying that the grounded plane is part of a “propaganda” campaign against Tehran, amid tensions with Western countries over negotiations to revive a 2015 nuclear deal.
The grounding came days before Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro visited Tehran last Saturday, where Iran and Venezuela signed a 20-year deal on cooperation between the allies that are both subject to US sanctions.
Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told reporters on Monday that the incident was part of efforts aimed to "cause a feeling of insecurity."
The plane was sold by Iran's Mahan Air to a Venezuelan company last year, he said, noting that "its crew members are not Iranians only" but included others of different nationalities.
"These recent weeks are filled with propaganda, are full of psychological operations, these wars of words that want to infiltrate the minds and composure of the people... this news is one of those," Khatibzadeh said.