Patrick Wintour – The Guardian June 13, 2019
Two oil tankers have been attacked in the Gulf of Oman, leaving one ablaze and the other adrift, a month after a similar incident in which four tankers in the region were struck.
The US navy’s fifth fleet said it was assisting the tankers, which issued distress calls near the strategic strait of Hormuz. The crew from both tankers were evacuated.
Reports of the explosions originally came from the same Hezbollah-linked news agencies in Lebanon that correctly reported attacks on tankers docked off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in May. The US blamed those attacks on Iran – an accusation Tehran has denied.
The suspected attacks occurred along one of the world’s busiest oil routes, and the price of oil surged as the initial reports emerged on Thursday.
Front Altair was carrying 75,000 tonnes of naphtha, a petrochemical feedstock, when it suffered a suspected torpedo hit, according to Taiwan’s state oil refiner CPC, which chartered the vessel. Other unverified reports suggested a mine attack.
The vessel was on fire but afloat, said its operator Frontline, denying a report by the Iranian news agency IRNA that it had sunk.
The Kokuka Courageous was damaged in a suspected attack that breached the hull above the waterline while en route from Saudi Arabia to Singapore, Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement said. “The ship is safely afloat,” it added
Iranian state TV reported 44 crew had been evacuated from the tankers to an Iranian port.
United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which is part of the Royal Navy, said it was investigating. “We are deeply concerned by reports of explosions and fires on vessels in the strait of Hormuz. We are in contact with local authorities and partners in the region,” said a UK government spokeswoman.
Tensions in the Gulf have been close to boiling point for weeks as the US puts “maximum economic pressure” on Iran in an attempt to force Tehran to reopen talks about the 2015 nuclear deal, which the US pulled out of last year.
The timing of Thursday’s attack was especially sensitive because it came as the Japanese prime minister, Shinzō Abe, held talks with the Iranian leadership in Tehran in an effort to find a basis for discussions between the US and Iran. The Japanese stressed they were not bringing specific messages from the US president, Donald Trump, and said nothing that they had heard in the first day of talks suggested a breakthrough was imminent.
Japan’s trade ministry said the two oil tankers involved in Thursday’s incidents carried “Japan-related” cargo.
The Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, described Thursday’s developments as “suspicious” and implied that the fault lay with a person or group trying to damage his country.
“Suspicious doesn’t begin to describe what likely transpired this morning,” he tweeted, adding that the incidents took place while Abe was meeting Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, “for extensive and friendly talks”.