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UAE to host European fleet patrolling Gulf

The patrol, established after tanker attacks in and around the Strait of Hormuz, 'to cooperate' with similar US project
Iran has denied culpability for a number of tanker attacks earlier this year (AFP)

A European-led mission to protect Gulf waters will be headquartered at a naval base in Abu Dhabi and is expected to be operational soon, France's defence minister said on Sunday.

France has spearheaded efforts to build a European-led fleet to ensure safe passage through the Strait of Hormuz after tanker attacks earlier this year that have been blamed on Iran.

Iran has denied culpability, but the attacks have increased tensions with the United States and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and have worried the international community, which depends on oil passing through what is one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

"This morning we formalised that the command post will be based on Emirati territory," Defence Minister Florence Parly told reporters at a French naval base in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE.

The command centre is set to host around a dozen officials representing the countries involved, she said. 

The response follows a similar such coalition set up by Washington earlier this month based in Bahrain to provide protection for vessels traversing the strait.

However, most European nations have been reluctant to join the US-led coalition, fearing it may hamper efforts to save the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, from which Washington withdrew last year.

On Sunday, Parly said that France "will coordinate with the Americans".

"We hope... to contribute to a navigation that is as safe as possible in a zone which we know is disputed and where there has already been a certain number of serious incidents," she said. She also condemned Iran's latest violations of a 2015 nuclear deal.

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Paris is also set to send defence equipment to Saudi Arabia to confront low-altitude attacks, following a September attack on the kingdom's oil facilities that affected output, Parly confirmed on Saturday. Washington and Riyadh have blamed Tehran, which has denied involvement.

Speaking at the annual Manama Dialogue on regional security in Bahrain on Saturday, the French minister also took aim at the US for its "disengagement" in the Middle East.

"We've seen a deliberate gradual US disengagement," Parly said, adding it had been "on the cards for a while" but had become clearer with recent events. 

"When the mining of ships went unanswered, the [US] drone got shot [down]. When that in turn went unanswered, major oil facilities were bombed. Where does it stop? Where are the stabilisers?" she asked.

"The region is accustomed to the ebb and flow of US involvement. But this time it seemed more serious."

In 2009, France opened its first military base outside Africa in the UAE, with some 700 personnel stationed permanently.