BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Police officers on Tuesday searched the hotel where the Venezuelan and Iranian crew of a mysterious plane that remains stuck at Buenos Aires’ main international airport have been staying as authorities blocked its exit amid suspicions about its crew and U.S. sanctions against Iran.
Federal Judge Federico Villena ordered the raid at Hotel Plaza Canning, outside Buenos Aires, which has housed the crew of the Venezuelan-owned Boeing 747 cargo plane loaded with automative parts.
The plane has been stuck at Argentina’s largest airport since June 6 as Argentine authorities have seized the passports of the five Iranians who are among the at least 17 crew members who arrived in Argentina aboard the plane.
Argentina’s security minister, Aníbal Fernández, said the government received information from foreign intelligence agencies that at least some of the Iranian crew were part of “companies related to the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard of Iran,” which has been officially listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government since 2007.
There do not appear to be any warrants out for the arrest of any of the crewmembers.
There are numerous suspicions surrounding the plane, including the way in which its operators reported a lower number of crewmembers than were actually aboard, an unusually large contingent for a cargo plane.
Until it was sold to Emtrasur around a year ago, the plane had been owned by Mahan Air of Iran, which the U.S. government has sanctioned for allegedly aiding the Quds Force and terrorist activities.
The plane had stopped in other Latin American countries, including Paraguay and Mexico, in earlier months, according to flight tracking services.
Opposition leaders in Argentina have criticized the government for allowing the plane to land in the country.
Gerardo Millman, one of the two opposition leaders who filed a judicial complaint calling for an investigation of the crew, said the plane flew with its transponder turned off, which could have been used to evade detection from air traffic control towers.
Argentine authorities insist they have not found any irregularities in the plane’s crew and the head of the Federal Intelligence Agency, Agustín Rossi, criticized the opposition for linking it to international terrorism.
Rossi said the plane carried cargo for several Argentine auto parts companies that it loaded in Mexico before stopping by Caracas and arriving in Argentina on June 6. It first landed in the central city of Córdoba due to weather conditions that prevented it from landing in Ezeiza, just outside Buenos Aires.
“The plane’s cargo was verified in all manners possible,” Rossi told a local radio station.
The unusually large crew had earlier raised suspicions in Paraguay, where the plane landed last month in Ciudad del Este, close to the Argentina and Brazil borders, where it remained between May 13 and May 16, Paraguay’s interior minister, Federico González, told a local radio station Tuesday.
The plane landed in Paraguay with “18 crew members, of which seven were Iranians and 11 Venezuelans,” Douglas Cubilla, head of airports at Paraguay’s National Civil Aeronautics Directorate, had told a local radio station on May 18. “Cargo planes always have six or seven crewmembers” and the large number of crewmembers “caught our eye.”
Two directorate officials, including the head of the Ciudad del Este airport, have been removed from their posts as a result of irregularities involving the plane, González said.
It was only after the plane left Paraguay that officials learned it “belonged to an Iranian company that is suspended with sanctions by the U.S. Treasury Department” and that the Iranian crew were part of the Quds Force, González said.
The plane appears to have transported cigarettes out of Ciudad del Este, González said.
González said Paraguay alerted intelligence agencies in the region about the plane and its crew, although he did not specify when that took place.
Uruguay had earlier rejected entry of the plane to its airspace before it landed in Argentina.
Argentina suffered two terrorist attacks that authorities blame on Iran, a 1992 explosion at the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and another at a Jewish organization in 1994. Argentina is seeking the arrest of several Iranian officials, though Iran denies involvement.
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