(ATTN: UPDATES throughout with more details; ADDS photo)
By Kim Seung-yeon
SEOUL, April 9 (Yonhap) -- Iran released a South Korean oil tanker and its captain, Seoul's foreign ministry said Friday, about three months after they were seized over alleged oil pollution.
The ship, with its captain and 12 other crew members aboard, left the Iranian port at around 6 a.m. (Iran time), the ministry said. The crew members had been released earlier but have remained on the ship for maintenance purposes.
The ministry said the captain and the crew members remain safe and sound.
Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps seized the Hankuk Chemi and its 20 crew members in its waters on Jan. 4, claiming that the ship violated environmental rules.
But speculation has persisted that the seizure was linked to Tehran's anger over what it sees as Seoul's lack of efforts to release about US$7 billion of Iranian assets locked in South Korean banks due to U.S. sanctions.
Iran has said the seizure is purely a technical issue to be dealt with in accordance with judicial procedures.
The release came amid speculation that Seoul and Tehran might have made headway in addressing the Middle Eastern country's call to unlock the funds.
The two countries have been in consultations to resolve the issue of the frozen money, including using a U.S.-backed Swiss humanitarian trade arrangement to facilitate the export of humanitarian goods to Iran.
Since February, the captain and a few crew members have stayed on the ship after the Iranian authorities announced they would set free all sailors except for the captain for the ship's management.