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Gulf of Oman attacks: Japanese company and US offer differing narratives

Kokuka Sanyago says its staff saw two 'flying objects' strike its ship, while Washington releases video purportedly of Iranian forces removing a mine
A picture released by US Central Command shows damage from an explosion, left, and a likely limpet mine, on the hull of the civilian vessel M/V Kokuka Courageous in the Gulf of Oman (Reuters)

Differing narratives over an attack on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman emerged on Friday, as the Japanese company that owned one of the ships said it was hit by two "flying objects", while the US released a video suggesting the vessel had been mined.

The United States has laid the blame for the attacks squarely at Tehran's door, with US President Donald Trump saying the incident had Iran "written all over it".

The Kokuka Courageous was sailing through the Gulf of Oman towards the port of Khor Fakkan in the UAE before it was evacuated after it was attacked, Yutaka Katada, president of Japanese company Kokuka Sanyago, told a news conference. 

The Japanese ship and the Norwegian-owned Front Altair were both struck by explosions while sailing through the Gulf on Thursday.

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Katada said the Kokuka Courageous's crew saw flying objects approaching the ship. 

"The crew told us something came flying at the ship, and they found a hole," Katada said. "Then some crew witnessed the second shot."

Katada added that the ship's 25,000 tonnes methanol shipment had not been damaged in the attack. 

He also noted that there was no possibility that the ship was struck by a torpedo and said that the crew saw an Iranian military ship in the vicinity of the Kokuka Courageous on Thursday night Japanese time. 

US claims IRGC removed mine on oil tanker

Katada's statement comes after the United States Central Military Command released a video that it said showed Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) removing an unexploded mine from the Kokuka Courageous. 

US Navy Captain Bill Urban, a spokesperson for his country's US Military's Central Command, said that the images showed the IRGC removing an "unexploded limpet mine" from the Japanese oil tanker Kokuka Courageous. 

The images were released by Washington following Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's statement late Thursday holding Iran responsible.

On Friday, Trump told Fox TV: "Iran did do it."

"You know they did it because you saw the boat," Trump said. "I guess one of the mines didn't explode and it's probably got essentially Iran written all over it."

"You saw the boat at night, successfully trying to take the mine off - and that was exposed," he added.

US military's timeline of Gulf of Oman attacks

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8:09 am local time: A US aircraft observed an IRGC Hendijan class patrol boat and multiple IRGC fast attack craft in the vicinity of the Altair.

9:12 am local time: A US aircraft observes the IRGC boat pull a raft from the Altair from the water.

9:26 am local time: The Iranians requested that the motor vessel Hyundai Dubai, which had rescued the sailors from the Altair, to turn the crew over to the Iranian FIACs. The motor vessel Hyundai Dubai complied with the request and transferred the crew of the Altair to the Iranian boats. 

11:05 am local time: USS Bainbridge approaches the Dutch tug Coastal Ace, which had rescued the crew of 21 sailors from the Kokuka Courageous who had abandoned their ship after discovering a probable unexploded limpet mine on their hull following an initial explosion.

While the Hendijan patrol boat appeared to attempt to get to the tug Coastal Ace before USS Bainbridge, the mariners were rescued by USS Bainbridge at the request of the master of the Kokuka Courageous. The rescued sailors are currently aboard USS Bainbridge.

4:10 pm local time: An IRGC Gashti Class patrol boat approached the Kokuka Courageous and was observed and recorded removing the unexploded limpet mine from the Kokuka Courageous.

However, in a statement the US military said: "We have no interest in engaging in a new conflict in the Middle East. We will defend our interests, but a war with Iran is not in our strategic interest, nor in the best interest of the international community."

Iran denies involvement and said it was alarmed by allegations that it was responsible for the attack on the tankers. 

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javid Zarif said Washington had "immediately jumped to make allegations against Iran without a shred of factual or circumstantial evidence".

Zarif tweeted that the US was seeking to "sabotage diplomacy" amid a visit to Iran by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and "cover up its economic terrorism against Iran" in enforcing crippling unilateral sanctions.

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said the accusations were "alarming".

'We have no reason not to believe the American assessment and our instinct is to believe it because they are our closest ally'

- Jeremy Hunt, UK foreign secretary

"We are responsible for ensuring the security of the Strait and we have rescued the crew of those attacked tankers in the shortest possible time," Mousavi said on state radio. 

"Obviously, accusing Iran for such a suspicious and unfortunate incident is the simplest and the most convenient way for Pompeo and other US officials. These accusations are alarming."

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt on Friday backed the United States' assessment.

"We are going to make our own independent assessment, we have our processes to do that, (but) we have no reason not to believe the American assessment and our instinct is to believe it because they are our closest ally," Hunt told the BBC.

Crude oil prices surged as much as four percent following the incident over worries about Middle East supplies.

Zarif slams 'suspicious' incidents

On Thursday Zarif said the two oil tanker incidents were "suspicious" and called for regional dialogue to avoid tensions.

Zarif tweeted that "reported attacks on Japan-related" oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman had taken place while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was meeting Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei "for extensive and friendly talks".

Gulf of Oman

Japan's Kokuka Sangyo said its ship was hit twice over a three-hour period.

The owners said the 21 crew members abandoned ship after an incident on board that resulted in damages to the ship's hull starboard side. 

The tanker was about 70 nautical miles from the United Arab Emirate's Fujairah and about 14 nautical miles off the coast of Iran.

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The second tanker, Front Altair, sailed out of Ruwais in the UAE, and Kokuka out of the Saudi port of al-Jubail, according to shipping tracking data.

Front Altair was headed to Taiwan, while Kokuka's destination was Singapore. Both ships' status was "stopped", with the former reaching that status at 06:47 GMT and the latter at 06:21 GMT.

Front Altair’s status was updated to “underway using engine” at 09:05 GMT on Thursday, according to marinetraffic.com.

Taiwan's state oil refiner CPC said the Front Altair, owned by Norway's Frontline and carrying 75,000 tonnes of the petrochemical feedstock naphtha to Taiwan, was "suspected of being hit by a torpedo" around 04:00 GMT.

Frontline said its vessel was on fire but afloat, denying a report by the Iranian news agency IRNA that the vessel had sunk.

The master of the Front Altair ordered the 23-member crew to abandon ship after a blast, International Tanker Management, the technical manager of the vessel, said in a statement. It said the crew were picked up by the nearby Hyundai Dubai.