UPDATE 3-Iranian fuel tankers approach Venezuelan waters despite U.S. warning
(Recasts with approach of first tanker, adds quote from Venezuelan oil minister; adds bylines; changes dateline, previous DUBAI)
CARACAS/DUBAI, May 23 (Reuters) - The first of five Iranian tankers carrying fuel for gasoline-starved Venezuela approached the South American country's waters on Saturday afternoon, despite a U.S. official's warning that Washington was considering a response to the shipment.
As of 4:51 p.m. local time (2051 GMT), the tanker - named Fortune - was passing north of the neighboring dual-island Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, Refinitiv Eikon data showed.
Venezuelan state television reported that the vessel would arrive in the country's waters at 7 p.m. local time (2300 GMT), and showed images of a navy ship and aircraft preparing to meet it.
The nation's defense minister had pledged that the military would escort the tankers once they reached Venezuela's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) due to what authorities described as threats from the United States.
"We welcome the boats from the Islamic Republic of Iran, which will soon arrive at our fatherland's ports," Tareck El Aissami, Venezuela's economy vice president and recently named oil minister, wrote on Twitter.
The tanker flotilla is carrying a total of 1.53 million barrels of gasoline and alkylate to Venezuela, according to both governments, sources and calculations by TankerTrackers.com.
The shipments, desperately needed as gasoline is increasingly scarce in Venezuela, have caused a diplomatic standoff between the United States and Iran and Venezuela as both countries are under U.S. sanctions.
Washington is considering measures in response, according to a senior U.S. official, who did not elaborate on any options.
The United States recently beefed up its naval presence in the Caribbean for what it said was an expanded antidrug operation. But a Pentagon spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman, said on Thursday he was not aware of any operations related to the Iranian cargoes.
Earlier on Saturday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned of retaliatory measures against the United States if Washington caused problems for tankers carrying Iranian fuel to Venezuela, the semi-official news agency Mehr reported.
"If our tankers in the Caribbean or anywhere in the world face trouble caused by the Americans, they (the U.S.) will also be in trouble," Rouhani said in a telephone conversation with Qatar's Emir, Mehr reported.
(Reporting by Dubai newsroom, Deisy Buitrago in Caracas, Luc Cohen in New York and Marianna Parraga in Mexico City; Editing by David Evans, Andrea Ricci and Jonathan Oatis)
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