The Governments of Paraguay and Uruguay had alerted Argentina about the Iranian crew flying the Venezuelan-flagged Boeing 747-300 cargo airplane now seized at Buenos Aires' Ezeiza airport.
Paraguayan government sources cited by Argentine media confirmed the Emtrasur aircraft, registration YV3531, was involved in an international, while Uruguay's Defense Minister Javier García also admitted the 4-engined airplane had been denied entry into national skies.
Paraguay's intelligence had been alerted by a trip May 13 from Paraguay to Aruba, with a crew of 18 of Iranian and Venezuelan nationality, carrying US$ 755,000 worth of cigarettes into Ciudad del Este's Guarani International Airport for the TABESA tobacco company linked to former Paraguayan President Horacio Cartés.
On June 6, the aircraft entered Argentina from Mexico. It was unable to land at Ezeiza due to fog and was diverted to Cordoba. That same day, it finally flew to Ezeiza. On June 8, it tried to fly to Uruguay but was denied access. We made the decision based on information from the Ministry of Interior. We do not allow him to enter our sovereign airspace and return to Ezeiza Airport, Garcia explained.
Also on June 8, Paraguay's National Directorate of Civil Aeronautics (DINAC) denied a request from the 747 to make a technical stopover the following day and was forced to return to Argentine territory, thus landing at Ezeiza.
Both the flight from Paraguay to Aruba on May 13 and the one that entered Argentina on June 8 were piloted by Gholamreza Ghasemi Abbas, an alleged shareholder and member of the board of directors and executive director of the airline Qeshm Fars Air, used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) to move weapons and military equipment to Syria during the civil war. His name also matches that of a former Iranian Revolutionary Guard officer.
Argentine Prosecutor Cecilia Incardona has requested a series of measures, including having the aircraft grounded at Ezeiza pending further investigations which are now under a seal of secrecy.
Judge Federico Villena Monday reversed some of his own previous decisions and had the airplane's crew fingerprinted at the hotel where they are staying in the Ezeiza area, while their passports have not been returned to them following a presentation by the Delegation of Argentine Israelite Associations (DAIA), which has requested to act as plaintiff in the case, since some of the Iranians are said to have some degree of involvement in the 1992 and 1994 bomb attacks against Jewish community facilities in Buenos Aires, including Israel's embassy.
The prosecutor considered there were enough elements to investigate the episode, such as the arrival of the plane to Argentina, the flight plan and its cargo. Technically, the aircraft has not been banned from leaving the country, although nobody seems willing to refuel it.
The Boeing 747 belongs to the Iranian airline Mahan Air and is sanctioned by the United States. It came from Caracas and was traveling under the Venezuelan flag. The aircraft landed on Monday, June 6 in Cordoba due to dense fog in Buenos Aires. It then headed to Ezeiza international airport.
The plane has identification markings of Emtrasur, a subsidiary of Venezuela's national airline Conviasa, also under U.S. sanctions since February 2020. They were reportedly flying to the country to bring auto parts.
While the possible links of the Iranian crew with terrorism are under investigation, the spotlight has shifted onto Venezuela's Chargé d'Affaires in Buenos Aires, Stella Lugo Betancourt, one of the promoters of the 2019 agreement between Nicolás Maduro's regime and Mahan Air when she was Minister of Tourism. The Boeing 747-300 was transferred to Venezuela under that agreement.
We all know what Ciudad del Este is for the region: money laundering, links with armed groups and presence of radicalized or terrorist groups, international analyst Andrei Serbin, who follows the case from his Twitter account, told TN.
Mahan Air is suspected by the United States of providing services to terrorist groups. Specifically, the U.S. Treasury Department accuses it of transporting weapons, equipment, funds, and personnel of the Lebanese Islamic group Hezbollah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, known as the Quds Force.
The Emtrasur company provides some cover for legitimate commercial activity, Serbin added. Emtrasur is a state-owned airline that in practice functions as a strategic transport for the Venezuelan Air Force. Iran does the same with Mahan Air to avoid having a military transport fleet. The Venezuelans emulate the Iranian model, he went on.
The Venezuelan airline operates from the Libertador Air Base, in the state of Aragua. It operates from a military base, he pointed out. The link is starting to become quite clear. It is an extension of the Bolivarian national armed force under the direct strategic political control of the Venezuelan government, he explained.
Meanwhile, Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó said Maduro had opened Venezuela's doors to global authoritarianism and its terrorist groups, which is why supporting the dictatorship in Venezuela is also supporting terrorism.
What happened with the plane held in Argentina should alert the democracies of the world, Guaidó stressed.