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One of the 17 Indian crew members of ship seized by Iran returns home

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Ann Tessa Joseph, a deck cadet who was a part of 17 Indian Indian nationals onboard the seized vessel MSC Aries, on her arrival at the Cochin Airport, Thursday, April 18, 2024.
| Photo Credit: PTI

One of the 17 Indian sailors aboard the Portugal-flagged MSC Aries that was detained by the Iranian authorities last weekend has returned home in Kerala, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has announced. Ann Tessa Joseph, a resident of Thrissur, was welcomed at the Cochin International Airport by government officials when she arrived from Iran on Thursday (April 18).

“The Indian Mission in Tehran remains seized of the matter and is in touch with the remaining 16 Indian crew members of the container vessel. The crew members are in good health and in contact with their family members in India,” said the MEA in a press release informing that the MEA is trying to ensure the well being of the Indian sailors in Iranian custody. The Iranian authorities had earlier claimed that the cargo vessel had “violated international maritime law”.

In the meanwhile, in an interview with The Hindu, Iran’s ambassador to India, Iraj Elahi said on April 18, “Indian sailors are not detained. They are at the disposal of the ship’s captain. We are in direct contact with the Indian Embassy in Tehran and the Indian citizens are in a very good condition. As far as we know, they haven’t been able to come to the beach yet due to the bad weather and stormy sea. They are free and can leave Iran whenever they like.”

On April 13, the ship was seized by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards who rappelled down from a helicopter on the ship and steered it towards an Iranian base. Israel’s Foreign Minister Israel Katz had described the Iranian move as “pirate operation” saying, “I call on the European Union and the free world to immediately declare the Iranian Revolutionary Guards corps as a terrorist organisation and to sanction Iran now.”

As a result, sources said the return of the other 16 Indians, still on board the MSC Aries at sea is more complex. While no charges have been pressed against the crew members, the ship itself has been impounded, and the crew would need a second ship to help them come ashore. In addition, the Aries cannot be left unmanned, and therefore, some crew members would need to remain. After a strong request from India, including External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s intervention, the Iranian government made an exception for the female cadet, and have ensured that other crew members can speak to their families in India.

The MEA swung into action after news spread that at least 17 Indian sailors were among the crew of the MSC Aries that is owned by London-headquartered Zodiac Maritime of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer. At the time of the incident, the vessel was chartered to Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) headquartered in Switzerland. The MEA had started dialogue with the Iranian authorities both through the Indian embassy in Tehran as well as the Iranian embassy here to free the Indian members of the crew.

Soon thereafter, Mr. Jaishankar reached out to his counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and sought Tehran’s assistance in ensuring early release of the Indian crew members.

Interception of the MSC Aries added to the tension between Iran and Israel that subsequently led to the first ever drone and missile attack by Iran on multiple targets in Israel. By capturing the ship from the Strait of Hormuz, Iran had hinted that it had the military might to disrupt maritime traffic through the strategically important route in case of any further escalation in tension between Tehran and Tel Aviv. The incident is also an escalation to the ongoing Red Sea crisis. Since the beginning of the Israeli offensive in Gaza, Houthi rebels in Yemen have been targeting Israeli-linked commercial shipping on the high seas with ballistic missiles and drones.

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