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US blames Iran for attacks on tankers in Gulf of Oman

Japanese owner of one vessel, Kokuka Courageous, says its ship was hit twice in three-hour period
Picture purportedly showing Front Altair on fire on Thursday morning (AFP/ISNA)

The United States blamed Iran for attacks on two tankers heading out from Saudi and Emirati ports in the Gulf of Oman, but provided no concrete evidence to back up the assertion.

In a news briefing on Thursday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US had assessed that Iran is responsible for the incident.

Pompeo said the assessment was "based on intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping, and the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication".

The secretary of state's comments came hours after the Front Altair, carrying petrochemical feedstock, caught fire in waters between Gulf Arab states and Iran following an explosion that a source blamed on a magnetic mine.

The Norwegian owner of the Marshal Islands-flagged vessel said its crew was safe.

A Japanese-owned tanker, the Panama-flagged Kokuka Courageous, was abandoned after being hit by a suspected torpedo, the firm that chartered the ship said.

Pompeo also accused Iran of trying to disrupt the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz.

The incidents come amid heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington, which last month accused the Iranian government of planning to attack American forces and interests in the Middle East.

Iran has rejected those allegations, accusing the Trump administration of waging an unjust economic and diplomatic war against it.

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On Thursday, Iran's official news agency IRNA said its navy had rescued 44 crew members from the two oil tankers which it said caught fire after an "accident".

"Forty-four sailors from the two foreign oil tankers, which had an accident this morning in the Sea of Oman, were saved from the water by the [navy] rescue unit of Hormozgan province and transferred to the port of Bandar-e-Jask," IRNA quoted an "informed source" as saying.

IRNA reported that 23 of the crew members rescued by the Iranian navy had been taken out of the water.

A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iran-aligned Houthis in Yemen said on Thursday that the incident marked a "major escalation".

The spokesman said he believed the attack on the tankers could be connected to an another in July 2018 by the Houthis on an oil tanker in the Red Sea.

"From my perspective ... we can connect it to the Houthi attacks at Bab al-Mandeb," Colonel Turki al-Malki told reporters in Riyadh.

Earlier in the day, the White House said US President Donald Trump had "been briefed on the attack on ships in the Gulf of Oman".

"The US government is providing assistance and will continue to assess the situation," said White House news secretary Sarah Sanders.

Oil prices surge

Crude oil prices surged as much as 4 percent following the incident over worries about Middle East supplies.

Still, Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said on Thursday that Saudi Arabia and the Saudi Arabian Oil Company, Aramco, are committed to providing reliable oil supplies to the international market in the wake of the attacks, state news agency SPA reported.

Falih said the energy ministry and Aramco have increased their readiness to deal with attacks.

The tanker association Intertanko said there were growing worries for the safety of ships and their crews sailing through the Strait of Hormuz.

Two tankers evacuated after suspected attacks in the Gulf of Oman - Map

"Following two attacks on member vessels this morning, I am extremely worried about the safety of our crews going through the Strait of Hormuz," Paolo d’Amico, chairman of Intertanko, said in a statement.

"We need to remember that some 30 percent of the world’s [seaborne] crude oil passes through the Straits. If the waters are becoming unsafe, the supply to the entire Western world could be at risk."

Zarif slams 'suspicious' incidents

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad 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".

"Suspicious doesn't begin to describe what likely transpired this morning," he tweeted. "Iran's proposed Regional Dialogue Forum is imperative."

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Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement said the Kokuka Courageous was damaged in a "suspected attack" that breached the hull above the water line while transporting methanol from Saudi Arabia to Singapore.

It said the ship was afloat and the crew safe with one minor injury reported.

A shipping broker said the blast that struck the Kokuka Courageous might have been caused by a magnetic mine. "Kokuka Courageous is adrift without any crew on board,” the source told Reuters.

Japan's Kokuka Sangyo, owner of the Kokuka Courageous, 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.

'Suspected of being hit by a torpedo'

One of the tankers, 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, was "suspected of being hit by a torpedo" around 0400 GMT, as it carried 75,000 tonnes of the petrochemical feedstock naphtha to Taiwan.

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.

Distress calls

Earlier, the US Fifth Fleet said it was assisting two tankers after receiving two separate distress calls.

"We are aware of the reported attack on tankers in the Gulf of Oman. US Naval Forces in the region received two separate distress calls at 6:12 am local time and a second one at 7:00 am," Joshua Frey of the Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet said.

"US Navy ships are in the area and are rendering assistance."

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All major Gulf stock markets dropped following the news. Saudi's share index declined 0.8 percent, with heavyweight petrochemical maker Saudi Basic Industries decreasing 2.3 percent.

Tensions have risen in the region since Trump, who has demanded Tehran curb its military programmes and influence in the Middle East, pulled the US out of a deal between Iran and global powers to curb Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

Last month, two Saudi oil tankers, a Norwegian tanker and an Emirati vessel, were damaged in attacks near the UAE port of Fujairah, a major oil terminal which lies on the Gulf of Oman near the Strait of Hormuz.

Presenting a preliminary report to the United Nations Security Council last week, diplomats from the Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Norway said the attacks appeared to be have been carried out by divers aboard fast boats who attached mines to the ships.

US National Security Adviser John Bolton said last month that the attacks were the work of "naval mines almost certainly from Iran".

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei told Abe during his visit to Iran that Tehran would not repeat its "bitter experience" of negotiating with the US, state media reported.

"I do not see Trump as worthy of any message exchange, and I do not have any reply for him, now or in future," the Iranian leader said.