U.S. seeks to own Venezuelan 747 grounded in Argentina

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — The U.S. Justice Department said Tuesday it is seeking to own a Venezuelan cargo plane that has been grounded in Argentina since early June because it was previously owned by a company allegedly linked to Iran Air is owned by the terrorist organization linked to it.

The request to Argentina comes a day after an Argentine judge allowed 12 of the plane’s 19 crew members to leave the country as authorities continue to investigate possible terrorist ties to Boeing 747 passengers. Federal Judge Federico Velena said late Monday that the remaining four Iranians and three Venezuelans must stay.

The U.S. request to Argentina on Tuesday follows a warrant unsealed in federal court in the District of Columbia last month that argued the U.S.-made plane should be confiscated for violating U.S. export control laws.

According to the Justice Ministry, the plane was diverted from Iranian airline Mahan Air, which officials say supports the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, to Emtrasur, a subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned Consortio Venezolano de Industrias Aeronáuticas y Servicios Aéreos. , or Conversa. CONVIASA is sanctioned by the United States.

The U.S. said Mahan Airline transferred the planes to the Venezuelan company in October without prior authorization from the U.S. government, violating a Commerce Department order issued in 2008 that has been regularly updated since. The Justice Department said Emtrasur then re-exported the plane between Caracas, Tehran and Moscow — again without U.S. government approval.

“The Department of Justice will not tolerate transactions that violate our sanctions and export laws,” Matthew Olson, head of the Justice Department’s national security division, said in a statement. “Working with our partners around the world, we will not allow government and state-sponsored entities to evade our sanctions and export control regimes for their malicious activities.”

The moves mark the latest development in the saga of the mysterious plane, which landed at Ezeiza International Airport outside Buenos Aires on June 6 and grounded two days later.

The case has drawn attention in several South American countries, as well as in the United States and Israel, amid allegations that the plane was a cover for Iranian intelligence operations in the region. Iran and Venezuela vehemently deny the claims.

The issue has caught the attention of U.S. congressmen. More than a dozen U.S. Republican senators sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland on July 26, accusing the Justice Department of failing to assist Argentine authorities in their investigation of the Venezuelan plane.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., pressed Olson on the matter at a hearing last week, lamenting his belief that Iran was not being scrutinized as it deserved. Olson said he was aware of the incident, but added: “This is an ongoing issue. I can’t go into the details.”

The US Commerce Department took its own action on Tuesday, announcing a 180-day suspension of Emtrasur’s export privileges.

The Israeli government praised Argentina for grounding the plane and said at least some of the Iranian crew were “directly involved in arms trafficking to the terrorist group Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon.”

Among those who will continue to be banned from leaving Argentina is the plane’s Iranian pilot, Gholamreza Ghasemi.

Ghasemi is a former commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and a shareholder and board member of Iran’s Qeshm Fars Air, which the U.S. Treasury says is controlled by Mahan Air and provides material support to the Quds forces.

Other crew members to remain in Argentina are Abdolbaset Mohammadim, Mohammad Khosraviaragh and Saeid Vali Zadeh of Iran, and Mario Arraga, Víctor Pérez Gómez and José García Contreras of Venezuela.

“What is being investigated is whether they finance terrorist operations (especially with Hezbollah) in the name of legitimate activity, or whether they are involved in Hezbollah-related schemes,” the judge wrote.

Velena stressed that links to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were not investigated because Argentina does not consider it a terrorist group.

Mahan Air denied any involvement in the plane, and Venezuela demanded that Argentine authorities release the plane.

However, the Argentine authorities who searched the plane found a Mahan Air flight log documenting the plane’s flights after it was diverted to Emtrasur, including a flight to Tehran in April, the Justice Department said.

The plane carried cargo for several Argentine auto parts companies, which were loaded in Mexico before stopping in Caracas and arriving in Argentina.

The plane, which is also under investigation in Paraguay, landed in May and stopped for three days in Ciudad del Este, near the Argentine border, where it was loaded with cigarettes and bound for Aruba, according to Paraguayan authorities .

René Fernández, a former prosecutor at Paraguay’s National Anti-Corruption Secretariat, said there were suspicions that the plane’s cargo was a “mask” that masked the real reason for its stop in Paraguay.

The plane’s stopover in Paraguay was “shocking at least”, Wilena said, adding that further investigation was needed.


Tucker reported from Washington.

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