BUENOS AIRES - Israel praised Argentina on Thursday for holding a Venezuelan plane that included Iranian crew, saying the flight shows Tehran is trying to expand its influence in South America.
Washington also made clear it is keeping close tabs on the investigation into the Boeing 747, which was loaded with automotive parts and raised questions because its 19 crew members is an unusually large number for a cargo plane.
In a statement, the Israeli embassy commended the 'fast action' by Argentine authorities who 'identified in real time the potential threat' posed by the aircraft, which has been grounded at Argentina's main airport outside Buenos Aires since June 8.
Israel 'is particularly worried' about Iranian airlines 'that are dedicated to arms trafficking and the transfer of people and equipment for the Quds Force, which are under sanctions by the United States for being involved in terrorist activities,' the embassy said.
'The recent events provide evidence of the repeated attempts by the Islamic Republic of Iran, through the Revolutionary Guard and the Quds Force, to continue consolidating its influence throughout the world, including South America, as a base for terrorist actions in the continent,' the embassy added.
The top U.S. diplomat in Argentina also commented on the case.
'We are following with great interest the judicial and law enforcement investigations into the crew and the plane and thank the investigative efforts of Argentine authorities to clear up the situation,' U.S Ambassador Marc Stanley said in a statement shared with local media.
Argentine authorities have seized the passports of the five Iranians and 14 Venezuelan crew members on the plane, which is operated by Venezuela's state-owned Emtrasur line, a subsidiary of Conviasa, which is under U.S. sanctions.
Expanding the international reverberations in the case, Venezuela on Thursday evening harshly criticized Uruguay for failing to allow the plane to land in Montevideo to refuel.
The plane's crew sought to fly to Montevideo on June 8 but had to return to Buenos Aires after Uruguayan authorities refused entry into its airspace, according to a report by Argentina's Transportation Ministry. It was then that the plane was grounded by Argentine authorities.
Uruguay's 'regrettable action' could have 'caused a tragedy, human lives and damage to both nations,' Venezuela said in a statement, adding that it 'demands explanations about this terrible event from the Uruguayan government.'
Before it was sold to Emtrasur a year ago, the plane was owned by Mahan Air of Iran, which the U.S. government has sanctioned for allegedly aiding the Quds Force and terrorist activities.
Law enforcement offices on Tuesday searched the hotel where the crew members were staying under orders of Federal Judge Federico Villena, who is investigating the crew.
Argentine authorities say they have not found any irregularities in the crew.
The plane reportedly loaded automotive parts in Mexico and stopped in Venezuela before arriving in Argentina.
The 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, Paraguay's interior minister, Federico Gonzalez, told a local radio station Tuesday. He said the plane was there May 13-16.
Gonzalez said Paraguay alerted intelligence agencies in the region about the plane and its crew.
Argentina suffered two terrorist attacks in its capital that judicial investigators have blamed on Iran - a 1992 explosion at the Israeli embassy and a deadly bombing at a Jewish organization in 1994. Iran has denied any involvement.