Caracas, August 6, 2022 (venezuelanalysis.com) – Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro denounced a US attempt to seize a state-owned aircraft.
A Boeing 747-300 owned by Emtrasur landed at Ezeiza International Airport in Buenos Aires on June 6. Two days later, the airplane was controversially denied permission to land and refuel in Montevideo while in midair. After its forced return to the Argentinian capital it was grounded by local authorities.
“The US wants to steal a plane that legally belongs to Venezuela. The order is coming from an imperial court in Florida,” Maduro said during a televised broadcast on Wednesday.
The country’s president went on to call for “the support of the Argentinian people to recover this airplane.”
Emtrasur, a subsidiary of Venezuelan state airline Conviasa, acquired the 36-year-old cargo plane in January from Iran’s privately owned Mahan Air. It has a reported 90 tonne, 600 cubic meter capacity and is the company’s sole airplane.
The aircraft, named “Luisa Cáceres de Arismendi” in honor of an independence heroine, was transporting some 50 tonnes of auto parts from Mexico to be delivered to Argentinian factories. It had reportedly been used before for cargo shipments from countries like China and India as well as to deliver humanitarian aid to Caribbean countries.
Argentinian authorities seized the plane cargo and the crew’s passports. The Boeing 747-300 carried 14 Venezuelan nationals and five Iranians, allegedly to assist and train their Venezuelan counterparts.
The aircraft and its shipment were submitted to several inspections following judicial warrants which yielded no irregularities. Federal judge Federico Villena ordered the cargo released in late July.
Last Tuesday, Villena likewise authorized 12 crew members to leave the country. Three Venezuelans, reportedly Emtrasur managers, and four Iranians, among them pilot Gholamrez Ghasemi, remain under investigation for undisclosed reasons.
Emtrasur’s management has reiteratedly demanded the plane’s release, arguing that judicial authorities have found no wrongdoing and that the presence of Iranian crew members was stipulated in the purchase contract as technical assistance.
The case has fueled speculation in the Argentinian press, with outlets alleging that the Iranian nationals had ties to groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah. However, the claims have not been backed by any evidence, while the head of Argentina’s Federal Intelligence Agency Agustín Rossi told reporters that there were no international alerts or warrants for any of the aircrew members.
While the plane’s retention was not explained for many weeks, Reuters revealed that on July 19 the US Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a request to confiscate the Boeing 747-300 on the grounds that it violated US sanctions and export control laws.
Mahan Air has been blacklisted by the US Treasury Department over alleged ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, an organization Washington designates as “terrorist.” For its part, Conviasa was sanctioned in 2020 alongside several other Venezuelan state companies as part of US efforts to oust the Maduro government.
The DOJ argued in a statement that Mahan Air transferred custody of the aircraft “without US Government authorization” and wants the plane flown to US territory and confiscated.
The battle surrounding the Emtrasur airplane follows a string of seizures of Venezuelan state assets as part of the US’ wide-reaching economic blockade against the Caribbean nation.
Following the self-proclamation of Juan Guaidó as “interim president” in January 2019, the Trump administration proceeded to freeze US-based Venezuelan assets and place them under the hardline opposition’s control. The main one was US $8 billion-worth oil subsidiary Citgo, with Guaidó management since being accused of endangering the company.
Washington’s allies followed suit, with Colombia seizing agrochemical producer Monómeros and handing it to the US-backed faction. Similarly, United Kingdom judicial authorities have repeatedly refused to return gold reserves worth $1.7 billion to the Venezuelan Central Bank.