US Navy assisting Norwegian tanker targeted in Gulf of Oman

Two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, were attacked on Thursday, the US Navy said, with one adrift and on fire amid heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran and a high-stakes visit by the Japanese prime minister to Iran.

The latest incident comes after the US alleged that Iran used mines to attack four oil tankers off the nearby Emirati port of Fujairah last month.

The tanker association INTERTANKO said two vessels had been attacked in the Middle East and there were growing worries for the safety of ships and their crews sailing through the Strait of Hormuz.

The US Navy’s 5th Fleet said it is “aware of the reported attack on tankers in the Gulf of Oman” and its forces in the region had received two separate distress calls.

Obtained by AFP from Iranian State TV IRIB reportedly shows smoke billowing from a tanker said to have been attacked off the coast of Oman, at an undisclosed location.

Japan’s trade ministry says the two oil tankers reportedly attacked near the Strait of Hormuz carried “Japan-related” cargo.

Japanese operator Kokuka Sangyo confirmed one of its tankers carrying methanol came under fire in the Gulf of Oman.

The owner of the Marshal Islands-flagged Front Altair, which was loaded with 75,000 tonnes of flammable oil naphtha, refuted Iranian reports that it had sunk.

Crew rescued

All the crew were saved after abandoning Kokuka Courageous ship and its methanol cargo is intact, Kokuka Sangyo shipping company said. It was going from Saudi Arabia to Singapore.

At least 21 sailors were evacuated off the Kokuka. One sailor was slightly injured and the Pamana-flagged ship sustained hull damage.

“It appears other ships also came under fire,” company president Yutaka Katada told reporters in Tokyo, confirming an earlier report from its Singapore parent company about a “security incident” in the busy shipping waterway.

The Norwegian shipping firm Frontline confirmed that its oil tanker Front Altair was on fire, Norwegian newspaper VG reported earlier in the day, quoting a company spokesman.

All 23 crew members from the Marshal Islands-flagged tanker were brought to safety at a nearby vessel, the spokesman added

Iran rescued 44 crew members after tanker “accident”, IRNA state media reported.

Iranian state television’s website, citing the pro-Iran Lebanese satellite news channel Al Mayadeen, said earlier two oil tankers had been targeted in the Gulf of Oman. It offered no evidence to support the claim.

The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which is run by the British navy, put out the alert but did not elaborate on the incident. It said it was investigating.

Emirati officials declined to immediately comment. The coordinates offered for the incident by the UK group put it some 45 kilometres (25 miles) off the Iranian coastline.

Strategic waterway

“Following two attacks on Member vessels this morning, I am extremely worried about the safety of our crews going through the Strait of Hormuz,” Pao lo d’Amico, chairman of INTERTANKO, said in a statement.

“We need to remember that some 30% 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,” Amico said.

INTERTANKO represents the greater part of the world’s independent tanker fleet.

Benchmark Brent crude spiked 4% in trading following the reported attack, to over $62 a barrel, according to early market figures.

The area is near the Strait of Hormuz, a major strategic waterway through which a fifth of global oil consumption passes from Middle East producers.

There was no immediate confirmation from ship operators or authorities in Oman or the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in whose territorial waters four tankers were hit last month.

The shipping newspaper Tradewinds reported that a tanker owned by Norway’s Frontline had been struck by a torpedo off the coast of Fujairah, one of the Emirates in the UAE. It cited unnamed industry sources.

Frontline was not immediately available for comment.

One shipping broker said there had been an explosion “suspected from an outside attack” that may have involved a magnetic mine on the Kokuka.

“All crew safely abandoned the vessel and was picked up by Vessel Coastal Ace. Kokuka Courageous is adrift without any crew on board,” the source said.

Another source said the Front Altair reported a fire caused by a “surface attack” and that the crew had been picked up by nearby vessel Hyundai Dubai.

Trifecta of rising tensions

The attacks the US blamed on Iran in May occurred off the Emirati port of Fujairah, also on the Gulf of Oman, approaching the critical Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a third of all oil traded by sea passes.

The Thursday attack timing was especially sensitive as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was visiting Iran on a high-stakes diplomacy mission.

On Wednesday, after talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Abe warned that any “accidental conflict” that could be sparked amid the heightened US-Iran tensions must be avoided.

His message came just hours after Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels attacked a Saudi airport, wounding 26 people.

Riyadh accused Tehran of ordering the attack. Houthi-related media said the Saudi-led coalition retaliated on Thursday with air strikes on the capital Sanaa.

Meanwhile, in Tokyo, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, a top government spokesman, told reporters that Abe’s trip was intended to help de-escalate tensions in the Mideast — but not specifically mediate between Tehran and Washington.

His remarks were apparently meant to downplay and lower expectations amid uncertain prospects for Abe’s mission.

Tensions have escalated in the Mideast as Iran appears poised to break the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, prompted by the Trump administration’s pull out last year.