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Iranian ship flees Sri Lanka amid financial row

COLOMBO (AFP) — An Iranian cargo vessel at the centre of a financial row with a German lender fled Sri Lanka Thursday despite warnings to remain in anchorage, a naval official said.

The vessel identified as M.V. Amina was under "observation" for over two weeks after a German bank obtained a Sri Lankan court order to hold it, but the ship slipped out on Wednesday, navy spokesman Kosala Warnakulasuriya told AFP.

"It was anchored just outside our territorial waters and we had no jurisdiction to arrest it," Warnakulasuriya said. "By last evening, the ship had managed to get away."

Iranian shipping has come under increased scrutiny following international sanctions targeting the country's revenues used for its disputed nuclear programme.

It was not immediately what cargo the M.V. Amina was carrying or where it had headed. Indian media reports had said that Iranian owners of the vessel owed a large amount of money to a German bank.

Warnakulasuriya said the navy had fired warning shots last week in a bid to discourage the vessel from leaving, but it had managed to escape attention and slipped out in rough seas late Wednesday.

The vessel had been travelling from China with a crew that included eight Indians, and reached Sri Lanka's southern port of Galle late last month, Indian diplomats and police officials in the area said.

An Indian diplomatic source here said the Indian crew disembarked from the vessel despite a row over their salaries. Two crewmen were evacuated for medical treatment, an official said.

"There was no court order for us to board the ship and take action. We were only asked by the Marshal of the High Court of Colombo to keep it under observation and track its movements," Warnakulasuriya said.

He said the vessel had not committed any offence in Sri Lankan waters and therefore they did not act to seize it by force.

The international sanctions targeting Iran aim to force it to the negotiating table and abandon a nuclear programme.

Iran insists the programme is for purely peaceful purposes, and denies Western and Israeli allegations that it wants to manufacture nuclear weapons.

It is defiantly forging on with uranium enrichment and says it will survive the Western pressure.