‘Potential hijack’ of ship off UAE coast
A handout image released by US Central Command in August 2020 is said to show Iranian forces boarding a tanker in international waters in the Gulf of Oman.
LONDON: A UK maritime security agency said Tuesday a ship may have been hijacked off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, five days after an attack on a tanker left two dead.
United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations initially reported a “non-piracy” incident on the unidentified ship before upgrading its description to a “potential hijack”.
Maritime security analysts at Dryad Global and Aurora Intelligence identified the endangered ship as the Panama-flagged Asphalt Princess.
The ship was heading towards Iran under the control of armed men, said industry intelligence site Lloyd’s List.
The MarineTraffic website, which categorises the vessel as an asphalt and bitumen tanker, said it was travelling to Sohar, a port on Oman’s northern coast.
The incident at the opening of the Strait of Hormuz — one of the world’s busiest waterways — comes days after an attack on an Israeli-linked tanker bound for the UAE, which the United States and its allies blamed on Iran.
Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said Tuesday that “reported ‘incidents’ in the Persian Gulf and broader region appear utterly suspicious”.
“Reaffirming our strong commitment to regional stability and maritime security, Iran stands ready to offer assistance in case of any maritime accidents,” Khatibzadeh wrote on Twitter.
– ‘Deeply concerning’ incident –
The United States stopped short of assigning blame for the latest episode but State Department spokesman Ned Price said there had been “a very disturbing pattern of belligerence from Iran.
“When it comes to this specific incident, it’s too early for us to offer a judgement just yet,” Price told reporters.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States was in close touch with Britain over the “deeply concerning” incident.
While Iran has denied any involvement in the blast Thursday on the MT Mercer Street, the United States and Iran’s arch-enemy Israel both say an Iranian drone caused the explosion.
Two crew members, from Britain and Romania, died on the Liberian-flagged ship, which is managed by prominent Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier vowed a collective response against Iran over the incident, which he called a “direct threat” to freedom of navigation in the oil-rich waters.
US Navy forces who came to the aid of the crew in response to an emergency distress call saw evidence of the attack, according to the US military.
The tensions come as Iran on Tuesday inaugurated the Islamic republic’s eighth president, the ultraconservative cleric and prosecutor Ebrahim Raisi.
He succeeded Hassan Rouhani, considered a moderate, who sought to repair relations with the West and whose administration unsuccessfully sought to negotiate a revival of a nuclear accord with the United States.