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Iran blames collision for tanker incident as UK warns against 'dangerous path'

UK Foreign Office summons Iran's charge d'affaires following seizure of British-flagged tanker in the Gulf
Around one third of world's oil supplies travel through Strait of Hormuz (AFP/File photo)

Iran has blamed a collision for its decision to seize a British tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, as tensions continue to rise in the Gulf.

Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) took control of the Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz on Friday after it collided with an Iranian fishing boat whose distress call it ignored, the Fars news agency reported.

The vessel and its crew would remain in the Iranian port of Bander Abbas while the accident was investigated, it said, quoting the head of Ports and Maritime Organisation in southern Hormozgan province, Allahmorad Afifipour.

Britain's foreign minister Jeremy Hunt said London's reaction to Friday's tanker seizure would be "considered but robust", and it would ensure the safety of its shipping.

He accused Iran of a tit-for-tat response after the seizure by the British navy of Iran's Grace 1 tanker in Gibraltar on 4 July on suspicion of smuggling oil to Syria in breach of European Union sanctions.

"Yesterday's action in Gulf shows worrying signs Iran may be choosing a dangerous path of illegal and destabilising behaviour after Gibraltar’s legal detention of oil bound for Syria," Hunt said on Twitter on Saturday.

The foreign office also said it had summoned Iran's charge d'affaires on Saturday.

France and Germany joined Britain in condemning the seizure. All three countries are signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers that Washington undermined by quitting last year, setting Iran's already fragile relations with the West on a downward spiral.

"We have learned with great concern of the seizure of a British vessel by Iranian forces," France's foreign ministry said. "We strongly condemn it and express our full solidarity with the United Kingdom."

A German foreign ministry spokesman said further escalation of regional tensions "would be very dangerous (and)... undermine all ongoing efforts to find a way out of the current crisis."

US President Donald Trump said on Friday he would talk to Britain about the seizure, which drove oil prices up above $62 a barrel and which Bahrain, where the US Fifth Fleet is based, also condemned on Saturday.

The incident comes a day after Trump said a US warship destroyed an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz - a claim that was denied by top Iranian officials.

The companies that own and manage the Stena Impero said it "was approached by unidentified small crafts and a helicopter during transit of the Strait of Hormuz while the vessel was in international waters".

"We are presently unable to contact the vessel which is now heading north towards Iran," Stena Bulk and Northern Marine Management said in a statement, adding that 23 crew members were on board and no injuries were immediately reported.

The incident took place around 3 pm GMT, the companies said.

As news of the tanker capture spread, the UK Chamber of Shipping called for more security in the Gulf.

"We condemn unreservedly the capture of Stena Impero as she transited the Strait of Hormuz earlier today," the chamber's chief executive, Bob Sanguinetti, said in a statement.

"This incident represents an escalation. Whilst we call for [a] measured response, it is also clear that further protection for merchant vessels must be forthcoming to ensure enhanced security to guarantee free flow of trade in the region."

A third of the world's oil supplies travel through the Strait of Hormuz (MEE)
Around a third of the world's oil supplies travel through the Strait of Hormuz (MEE)

The United States said it was aware of reports that a tanker was seized and pledged to "work with allies" to defend its interests.

"The US will continue to work with our allies and partners to defend our security and interests against Iran's malign behaviour," said National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis, Reuters news agency reported.

Tensions have escalated between the US and Iran in recent weeks, after the Trump administration accused Tehran of planning to attack US forces and interests in the region.

The Iranian government has repeatedly denied the accusations.

Tanker previously seized

On Thursday, the IRGC said it had stopped a foreign tanker "smuggling fuel" in the Gulf.

The tanker was stopped on Sunday, Iranian state television reported.

It was reported that a Panama-flagged oil tanker, Riah, stopped transmitting its location on Saturday as it made its way through the Strait of Hormuz.

The IRGC has since released footage of Iranian military boats circling the Riah, which it said showed the ship being apprehended.

Around a third of the world's oil supplies travel through the Strait of Hormuz.

Amid escalating tensions with Tehran, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said the US was working to build a coalition of allies to patrol the Strait of Hormuz and Bab al-Mandeb, a strait between Yemen, Djibouti and Eritrea.

"We're engaging now with a number of countries to see if we can put together a coalition that would ensure freedom of navigation," General Joseph Dunford said on 9 July.