HONG KONG, Nov 22 (Reuters) - Hong Kong has deregistered five Iranian cargo ships and a further 14 are likely to follow after their classification society quit Iran due to sanctions imposed by the European Union and the United States over its nuclear programme.
Tough sanctions have tightened the screws on Tehran, which relies on its shipping trade for imports including food, consumer and industrial goods.
Hong Kong's marine department has asked the owners of 19 dry bulk carriers, managed by an Iranian firm, to register their ships elsewhere after the Korean Register of Shipping said earlier this year it would not provide the ships safety auditing.
"Five of the 19 ships have deregistered under the request of their owners," said Wong Sai Fat, general manager of the department's shipping register.
The remainder will be deflagged 90 days after a notice issued earlier this month unless they can find a Hong Kong authorised classification society to sign their documents of compliance, he told Reuters in a telephone interview.
These ships would find it difficult to remain flagged in Hong Kong because all of the nine societies authorised by the marine department are members of the International Association of Classification Societies (IACS).
Some of the 13 IACS members, including the China Classification Society (CCS), had previously provided Iran-related certification work, key to insurance and ports access for ships, but have now ended that activity.
Hong Kong had been urged by U.S. pressure group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) to deflag the 19 dry bulk ships, which the group said were owned, managed or operated by the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Line (IRISL) and its associated companies.
In a reply to UANI dated Nov. 9 Wong said it was of paramount importance to Hong Kong's marine department in safeguarding the quality of Hong Kong ships.
But Wong denied the move was related to the Iranian sanctions. "These ships are neither owned nor managed by IRISL," he said on Thursday.
IRISL, the country's top cargo carrier, has been on a Western blacklist of sanctioned entities for years. It denies any wrongdoing.
Wong would not identify the 19 ships but said they had separate owners and were managed by the same Iranian firm.
About 2,000 ocean-going vessels fly the Hong Kong flag and other than the 19 ships mentioned, none of the others are related to Iran, he said.
"Hong Kong has always exercised due vigilance in enforcing our local legislation to effectively implementing as well as ensuring full compliance with United Nations sanctions," he added.