Security

Iran accused of tanker hijacking attempt as Gulf tensions rise

By Pakistan Forward and AFP

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The MT Mercer Street was attacked off the port of the Gulf Emirate of Fujairah on July 29. A British security guard and a Romanian crew member were killed in what the United States and Britain said was an Iranian drone strike. [Karim Sahib/AFP]

The United States said Wednesday (August 4) it suspected Iranian involvement in the alleged hijacking of a ship in the Gulf of Oman as it vowed to work with Britain to respond to an earlier deadly attack it blamed on Tehran.

Oman said the Asphalt Princess, an asphalt and bitumen tanker, was involved in "a hijacking incident in international waters" on Tuesday, and that the sultanate had deployed aircraft and naval ships.

United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) initially reported a "non-piracy" incident on the ship before upgrading its description to a "potential hijack".

The shipping industry intelligence site Lloyd's List reported that armed men had boarded the Asphalt Princess and ordered it to sail to Iran.

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The Asphalt Princess vessel was involved in a hijacking incident in international waters off the port of Fujairah, in the Gulf of Oman. The United States said it suspects Iranian involvement in the alleged hijacking. [UKMTO/Twitter]

The United States and Britain said the murky incident concluded after one day, with the alleged hijackers leaving the Panamanian-flagged vessel.

"We believe that these personnel were Iranian," State Department spokesman Ned Price said Wednesday.

"Iran has undertaken a pattern of belligerence in terms of proxy attacks in the region and of course, these maritime attacks," Price said, while adding that circumstances in the latest incident were "still emerging".

Oman's defence ministry said its air force carried out sorties near the Asphalt Princess, and its navy deployed a number of ships to secure the waters.

It said the "potential hijacking" of the ship took place 100km east of the UAE's Fujairah port as it headed towards the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world's busiest waterways.

Co-ordinated response

Meanwhile, maritime security firm Ambrey on Thursday said the British security guard who was killed in a suspected Iranian drone strike on the Mercer Street tanker off the coast of Oman last week was a former soldier in the British army.

A Romanian captain also was killed in the July 29 attack on MT Mercer Street, which is managed by prominent Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer in London, as it passed near the island of Masirah in the Arabian Sea.

The United States, the United Kingdom and Israel have accused Iran of being behind the attack.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the attack "unacceptable and outrageous" and warned Iran of consequences.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday spoke with UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab about ongoing efforts to forge a co-ordinated response to Iran's attack on the Mercer Street, the State Department said.

Security analysts have said the fatal attack has upped the stakes in the "shadow war" against vessels linked to Iran and Israel.

Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz urged ambassadors in Jerusalem to "hold Iran accountable for its actions".

He named a senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officer he said was responsible for attacking the tanker and other strikes.

"Saeed Ara Jani is the Head of the IRGC's unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) Command," Gantz said. "This is the man that is personally responsible for the terror attacks in the Gulf of Oman."

The tensions come as Iran's new president Ebrahim Raisi takes the oath before parliament Thursday, with Iran facing an economy battered by sanctions, a grinding health crisis and thorny negotiations on its nuclear programme.

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