Two tankers caught fire after suspected attacks Thursday in the Gulf of Oman near the Strait of Hormuz, and the Trump administration has concluded Iran is responsible for the attacks, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.
“This assessment is 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,” Pompeo said Thursday afternoon.
The Norwegian-owned Front Altair was “attacked between the Emirates and Iran” with “reportedly three detonations on board the ship,” according to the Norwegian Maritime Authority. The vessel was “suspected of being hit by a torpedo,” said Taiwanese refiner CPC Corp., which chartered the vessel, according to the BBC. The Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous was struck twice “with some sort of shell,” ship’s co-manager Michio Yuube said, according to CNN.
CNN cited a U.S. defense official as saying the crew of the USS Bainbridge reported they saw an unexploded limpet mine — a type of mine attached to the hull by magnets — on the side of one of the ships.
The International Association of Independent Tanker Owners (Intertanko) said the two ships “suffered explosions at or below the water line” in close proximity to the engine room, which “appeared to be well-planned and coordinated.”
The Bahrain-based U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet said it received two separate distress calls at 6:12 a.m. and 7 a.m. local time and the USS Bainbridge rendered assistance. All 44 crew members of the two ships were evacuated and safe, the owners said, and one crew member of the Panama-flagged Kukako Courageous suffered minor injuries in the incident, “which resulted in damage to the ship’s hull starboard side,” said Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement.
The 23 crew members on the Front Altair were rescued by the South Korean cargo ship Hyundai Dubai and were transferred to an Iranian naval vessel and disembarked at an Iranian port. Tank owner Frontline said the crew is believed to be en route to the port city of Bandar Abbas, CNN reported.
The crew of the Kokuka Courageous were picked up by the USS Bainbridge after being rescued by a tugboat, according to CNN.
The Marshall Islands-flagged Front Altair reportedly was loaded with 75,000 tonnes of naphtha and the Panama-listed Kokuka Courageous was carrying methanol from Saudi Arabia to Singapore, according to Reuters.
The attack came the same day Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was meeting Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran in a “visit widely viewed as an attempt to mediate U.S.-Iran tensions,” CNN reported.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted, “Suspicious doesn’t begin to describe what likely transpired this morning.”
CNN reported the United Nations Security Council was expected to meet at 4 p.m. Thursday to discuss the explosions.
BIMCO Secretary General and CEO Angus Frew called for nations “to de-escalate tensions and ensure the safe passage of merchant shipping in the Strait of Hormuz.” The strait is the only sea passage from the Persian Gulf to the open ocean and “the disruption of shipping through the strait will have a major impact on the oil trade and the shipping industry,” BIMCO said.
The Norwegian Maritime Authority urged “Norwegian ships to exercise extreme caution in the region” due to the suspected attacks, which followed the attack of four oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in May.
“Based on today’s incidents, even though the background for the attacks is not completely clear, the Norwegian Maritime Authority advises all ships to keep a safe distance from Iranian waters,” the authority said.