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The North Korean-flagged Chon Ma San and the Maldivian-flagged Xin Yuan 18 were seen alongside each other in the East China Sea on Feb. 24. Photo by Japanese Ministry of Defense.   © Kyodo
International relations

New claims of North Korean fuel smuggling hit Maldives

Tanker suspected of transfer at sea has ties to president, opposition party says

NEW DELHI -- The Maldivian opposition said Thursday that a vessel suspected of helping North Korea dodge international sanctions is registered in the Maldives and has links to the family of President Abdulla Yameen, who has denied involvement by the South Asian island nation.

A North Korean tanker and a tanker flying the Maldivian flag were spotted next to each other in the East China Sea on Saturday, the Japanese Foreign Ministry said in a statement Tuesday. Based on the vessels' position, the Japanese government "strongly suspects that they conducted ship-to-ship transfers" banned under United Nations Security Council resolutions, the ministry said.

Yameen on Wednesday denied that the tanker, the Xin Yuan 18, was a Maldivian vessel. "No such vessel is registered in the country," the president's office said, condemning the use of the Maldivian flag "to tarnish the good standing and reputation of our nation."

Yet the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party painted a different picture in a statement Thursday, saying the "Xin Yuan 18 is registered in the Maldives" and owned by a Hong Kong-based company called Ha Fa Trade International.

Moreover, the MDP said, the vessel, along with property belonging to Yameen's nephew, was used as collateral for a mortgage application by Maldivian company Green Box. Yameen's nephew later withdrew his property from the application, and Green Box never got the money, according to the MDP statement. Green Box is involved in a range of businesses including fuel trading, according to its website.

The Xin Yuan 18 is not the only Maldivian-flagged vessel suspected of engaging in illegal trade with North Korea.

"There is information in Male that a total of 27 ships registered in the Maldives and 11 Maldivians are involved in goods transfers to North Korea," a former Maldives minister told The Nikkei on Thursday, referring to the island nation's capital.

Local media have so far been silent on the allegations of sanctions evasion, said this person, who belongs to the MDP.

Yameen declared a state of emergency last month after the country's Supreme Court ordered the release of imprisoned opposition lawmakers. Critics, including exiled ex-president Mohamed Nasheed, have warned about the situation and the Maldives' heavy debts to China for infrastructure projects.

According to the ex-minister, a state-owned trade agency then led by Yameen has been accused of shipping $800 million in crude oil to Myanmar during the early 2000s, when the Southeast Asian country's military junta was under international sanctions. Nasheed's MDP-led government from 2008 to 2012 launched an investigation into the alleged activity, this person said.

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