Danish shipping giant Maersk insisted on Thursday on the release of a vessel and crew seized by Iran but an Iranian Embassy statement said the Maersk Tigris would only be let go once a years-old debt case was settled.
The Marshall-Islands flagged Maersk Tigris container ship was detained by Iranian forces in the Strait of Hormuz on Tuesday after shots were fired across its bow, spurring the United States to send military vessels to monitor the situation.
Maersk had chartered the ship, which according to ship operator Rickmer Shipmanagement is owned by undisclosed private investors. The company met with Iran's Ports and Maritime Organization on Wednesday and said the company "must presume" the seizure was related to the dispute.
"We have, however, not received any written or formal confirmation that the seizure and the cargo case are connected," the company said in a statement.
"We must insist that the crew and vessel are released as soon as possible. The crew is not employed by Maersk Line, nor is the vessel owned by Maersk Line. Maersk Tigris and its crew are thus not in any way party to the case."
Maersk, the world's biggest container shipping line, said it had agreed to pay an Iranian company $163,000 after an Iranian court ruling in February which related to a dispute about 10 container boxes transported to Dubai in 2005.
"The Iranian company appealed the case seeking a higher compensation," Maersk said.
"Only today, 30 April, have we learnt that the appeal court has ruled Maersk Line to pay $3.6 million. As we do not have the details of the ruling, we are not able to comment hereon, nor at this point speculate on our options."
A statement from the Iranian Embassy in Copenhagen said the Maersk Tigris was owned by Maersk and that it had been apprehended in Iranian waters. It said the Danish Embassy in Tehran had been informed of the case as it progressed.
"Naturally the ship will be released after settlements of debts by Maersk Shipping Line and will be allowed to sail to its final destination," the statement, dated April 29 but posted on Thursday, said.
"Iranian authorities reiterate that there has been absolutely no political or security intentions or considerations behind the incident," the statement said.
The incident occurred at a critical juncture in U.S.-Iranian relations, which could thaw should a tentative nuclear deal between Tehran and six world powers including Washington be clinched. It also coincides with heightened tension between regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia over the civil war in Yemen, in which they support opposing sides.
The Maersk Tigris was anchored close to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, according to Reuters ship tracking data.
There were 24 crew members on the vessel, mostly from Eastern Europe and Asia, and also a British national.
It was the second ship in less than a week to be approached by Iranian patrol boats. Earlier the U.S.-flagged Maersk Kensington was followed but no shots were fired, the Pentagon said on Wednesday, adding the incidents showed "a pattern of harassment".
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Wednesday Tehran "will respect international navigation in the Gulf".
Update: Iran Says Maersk to be Freed After Debt Settled
Iran's embassy in Denmark said the Maersk Tigris vessel that Iranian forces seized on Tuesday would only be released once the Danish shipping company settled debts in a long-running dispute over cargo.
The statement, which was dated April 29 but posted on Thursday, asserts that the Maersk Tigris vessel is owned by Maersk and that it had been apprehended in Iranian waters - two points the shipping company denies.
Update: US Navy to Escort Vessel Through Strait of Hormuz
U.S. Navy ships will start accompanying U.S.-flagged commercial vessels passing through the Strait of Hormuz after Iran's seizure of a Marshall Islands-flagged vessel two days ago, a U.S. defense official said on Thursday.
The official said the measure was expected to be in force for a limited time and was measured, adding ships would not be "escorting" the American vessels but only keeping them within eyeshot. Navy vessels already in the area would be tasked with the job, the official added.