The Venezuelan crew of a cargo plane grounded outside Buenos Aires since last week may not leave Argentina, a judge ruled Tuesday 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 organization” 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 cell 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 Cordoba, Argentina on Monday last week.
The plane then tried to travel to neighboring Uruguay, but was denied entry and returned to Ezeiza outside Buenos Aires where it has been grounded since last Wednesday.
The plane belongs to Emtrasur, a subsidiary of Venezuela’s Conviasa, which is under US sanctions.
A judge grounded the plane given a “reasonable suspicion that the reason given for entering (Argentina) might not be true.”
Police did not comment on the reason for the hotel search, but on Monday, Security Minister Anibal Fernandez said information had been received from “foreign organizations” that some among the crew may be linked to companies with ties to the Revolutionary Guards, Iran’s ideological army.
Fernandez said a smaller crew had been reported on the flight log than the number actually on the plane, though none were on Interpol’s wanted list.
The crew list did include “a relative of the Iranian interior minister,” said Fernandez, whose name “coincides with that of a member of the Revolutionary Guards.”
Also Tuesday, Paraguay said two officials who had authorized the landing of the plane there in May had been dismissed and two anti-drug agents were under investigation.
Interior Minister Federico Gonzalez 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.
Paraguay alerted the intelligence services of other countries in the region.
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 refueling 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.
“I don’t know if there were any modifications to the flight plan once it left Mexican airspace,” said Del Prete.
Iran said Monday that Argentina’s move was part of a “propaganda” campaign against Tehran amid tensions with Western countries over negotiations to revive a 2015 nuclear deal.
The grounding of the cargo plane came days before Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro visited Tehran on Saturday so that the allies, both subject to US sanctions, could sign a 20-year cooperation pact.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said the plane was sold by Iran’s Mahan Air to a Venezuelan company last year.
Mahan Air is accused by the United States of links with the Revolutionary Guards.
Interpol has arrest warrants out for former Iranian leaders suspected of involvement in an attack on a Jewish center in Buenos Aires in 1994 that killed 85 people and injured hundreds.