Two oil tankers were damaged in a suspected attack off the Gulf of Oman early Thursday, prompting the rescue of dozens of crew members.
The U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet told Reuters it was assisting two tankers in the Gulf of Oman after receiving two distress calls. Details of the incident were unclear, but one of the operators made an unconfirmed report that a torpedo had hit its ship, Reuters reported.
“We are aware of the reported attack on tankers in the Gulf of Oman. U.S. Naval Forces in the region received two separate distress calls at 6:12 a.m. local time and a second one at 7:00 a.m.,” Joshua Frey of the Fifth Fleet said. The Fleet did not blame anyone for the attack.
One of the vessels involved was identified as the MT Front Altair, a Marshall Islands-flagged but Norwegian-owned crude oil tanker carrying naphtha, a petrochemical product, to Japan.
International Tanker Management, which operates the MT Front Altair said an explosion had caused a fire onboard. The firm told the Associated Press the incident is still being investigated and it was unclear what caused the explosion. Its 23 crew members were evacuated by the nearby South Korean-based Hyundai Dubai Vessel and are now safe, the firm said.
Iran’s Islamic Republic News Agency, IRNA, claimed the Front Altair had sunk, but the Norwegian shipping firm Frontline said it was still afloat.
The Iranian Students News Agency tweeted unverified images of the Front Altair on fire.
The other vessel, the Panama-flagged, Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous, reportedly carrying methanol, sustained damage on its hull starboard side. 21 sailors were evacuated, and one was slightly injured.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, described the incidents as “suspicious” and called for regional talks. His comments came as Ayatollah Khamenei was meeting Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, for talks in Iran.
The area of the explosions is near the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic route through which 20 percent of global oil consumption passes from Middle East producers. Oil prices rose by about 4 percent in the wake of the latest incidents, while the tanker association INTERTANKO said that there were growing worries for the safety of ships sailing through the strait.
“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% 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.”
Thursday’s incident comes a month after the U.S. accused Iran of attacking ships off the coast of United Arab Emirates. The UAE told the U.N. Security Council a “state actor” was most likely behind the attacks but stopped short of blaming Iran.
The timing of Thursday’s incident was especially sensitive as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was visiting Iran as an interlocutor for President Donald Trump to ease tensions between Washington and Tehran.
On Wednesday, after talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Abe warned that any “accidental conflict” amid heightened tensions between Iran and the U.S. must be avoided at all costs.
While meeting with Abe on Thursday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that while Tehran doesn’t want an atomic bomb, “America could not do anything” to stop Iran if it did.
Khamenei was quoted earlier saying that Iran “will in no way repeat” negotiations with the U.S. amid tension over its unraveling nuclear deal with world powers.
Khamenei’s official website quoted him as telling Abe: “I don’t regard Trump as deserving any exchange of messages and have no response for him and will give no response.”