Tankers attacked with ‘mine and torpedo’ in Gulf of Oman

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Above, fire aboard the oil tanker Front Altair in the Gulf of Oman after a reported attack. (Reuters)
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Above, fire aboard the oil tanker Front Altair in the Gulf of Oman after a reported attack. (Reuters)
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Above, fire aboard the oil tanker Front Altair in the Gulf of Oman after a reported attack. (IRINN/AFP)
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A screen capture obtained by AFP from Iranian State TV IRNN on June 13, 2019, reportedly shows the two tankers involved in an incident off the Coast of Oman. (IRINN/AFP)
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Teams putting out a fire on board an oil tanker attacked in the Gulf of Oman. (AFP)
Updated 14 June 2019

Tankers attacked with ‘mine and torpedo’ in Gulf of Oman

  • Crews of Front Altair and Kokuka Courageous evacuated safely as one ship burns
  • Arab League says ‘some parties in the region are trying to start fires in the region’

DUBAI: Two oil tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman Thursday, leaving one ablaze and both adrift.

The attacks sent oil prices up by more than 3 percent by mid-afternoon over worries about Middle East supplies. They come at a time of heightened tensions over Iran’s activities in the region and after Tehran has repeatedly threatened to disrupt shipping in and out of the Arabian Gulf.

Thursday’s attacks took place to the east of the Strait of Hormuz, a major strategic waterway for world oil supplies, that leads into the Arabian Gulf.

The first ship, the Front Altair was on fire in between the coast of Iran and the UAE after an explosion. The Norwegian owner said its crew were safe.

A second Japanese-owned tanker, the Kokuka Courageous, was abandoned after being hit by a suspected torpedo, the firm that chartered the ship said. The crew were also picked up.

Bernhard Schulte Ship management said the hull of the Kokuka Courageous was breached above the water line while transporting methanol from Jubail in Saudi Arabia to Singapore. It said the ship was afloat and the crew safe with one minor injury reported.

A shipping broker said the blast that struck the Kokuka Courageous might have been caused by a magnetic mine. Japan’s Kokuka Sangyo, owner of the Kokuka Courageous, said its ship was hit twice over a three-hour period.

Taiwan’s state oil refiner CPC said the Front Altair, owned by Norway's Frontline, was “suspected of being hit by a torpedo” around 4 a.m. GMT, as it carried 75,000 tonnes of the petrochemical feedstock naphtha to Taiwan.

Frontline said its vessel was on fire but afloat, denying a report by the Iranian news agency IRNA that the vessel had sunk.

The Bahrain-based US Navy Fifth Fleet said it was assisting the two tankers after receiving distress calls.

TV images showed huge, thick plumes of smoke and fire billowing from one of the tankers as it lay out to sea.

The master of the Front Altair ordered the 23-member crew to abandon ship after a blast, International Tanker Management, the technical manager of the vessel, said. It said the crew were picked up by the nearby Hyundai Dubai.

The Front Altair loaded its cargo from Ruwais in the UAE, according to trade sources and shipping data on Refinitiv Eikon.

Iran’s IRNA reported that Iranian search and rescue teams had picked up 44 sailors from two damaged tankers and had taken them to the Iranian port of Jask. That report could not immediately be confirmed.

Ship tracking websites showed the two ships halting their course early Thursday after they had passed through the Strait of Hormuz

The Front Altair performed a hard turn to starboard just before 3 a.m. GMT and turning full circle. The Kokuka Courageous changed course after 7 a.m. GMT

Tensions have risen in the Gulf since an Iranian threat prompted the US last month to deploy an aircraft carrier strike group and B-52 bombers to the region.

Teams putting out a fire on board an oil tanker attacked in the Gulf of Oman. (AFP)

Within days of the announcement, four ships were attacked with limpet mines while moored off the UAE coast. Saudi Arabia and the US blamed the incident on Iran.

On Wednesday, a missile fired by Yemen-based Houthi militants, which are supported by Iran, struck Saudi Arabia’s Abha airport, injuring 26. The Houthis also claimed an armed drone strike last month on Saudi oil pumping stations.

President Donald Trump, who has demanded Tehran curb its military programmes and influence in the Middle East, pulled the United States out of a deal between Iran and global powers to curb Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

In recent months, the US has used punishing sanctions to reduce Iran’s oil exports to a trickle. Saudi Arabia and other oil producers in the region have increased production to fill the void and keep prices on track. 

Thursday’s attacks prompted strong international condemnation and deep  concern of the impact on shipping in an area which carries so much of the world’s oil supply.

“We need to remember that some 30 percent 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,” said Paolo d’Amico, chairman of INTERTANKO tanker association.



Two tanker owners suspend Gulf bookings as tension now ‘as high as it gets’

US blames Iran for Gulf of Oman tanker attacks


Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit called on the U.N. Security Council to act against those responsible to maintain security in the Gulf region.

"Some parties in the region are trying to instigate fires in the region and we must be aware of that," he told the 15-member council, without specifically naming anyone.

The White House said Donald Trump had been briefed on the incident and Britain said it was “deeply concerned.”

United Nations Secretary-General Antinio Guterres strongly condemned the attacks and warned that the world cannot afford a major confrontation in the Gulf.

The European Union called for "maximum restraint" to avoid an escalation in the region.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif described the incidents as “suspicious” on Twitter, noting that they occurred during Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to Tehran. 

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said people should not rush to blame Iran. Abe’s trip was designed to seek to defuse tensions with the US.

Analysts said the severity of the attacks was a marked escalation compared to the incident in Fujairah in May.

“Security will no doubt be beefed up, but it will have to be extended further if there is any repetition of such an attack,” Robin Mills, CEO of consultancy Qamar Energy, told Arab News. “This goes considerably … beyond the last Fujairah attacks.”

Within hours of the attacks, at least two oil-tanker owners — DHT Holdings and Heidmar — said they had suspended new bookings to the Gulf, Reuters reported.

Shipping association BIMCO, which represents some 60 percent of the world’s merchant fleet, urged its members to “exercise extreme caution” in the area.

“The tension in the Strait of Hormuz and the Arabian Gulf is now as high as it gets without being an actual armed conflict,” Peter Sand, chief shipping analyst at BIMCO, told Arab News. 

“(We advise) our members to exercise extreme caution and instruct their vessels to take precautions … when operating in the area. Depending on the risk acceptance levels of the company, and to the extent operations allow, it could be considered to instruct ships to avoid the area or keep as much distance as possible.”

Sand said it was understandable that some shipping companies had stopped bookings to the area but doubted whether others will follow. 

*With Agencies 

‘Hypocrite’ Rouhani rejects war as Iran’s drones target Saudi civilians

Updated 19 June 2019

‘Hypocrite’ Rouhani rejects war as Iran’s drones target Saudi civilians

  • Tehran regime has fanned sectarian flames in region for four decades, analyst tells Arab News
  • IRGC chief says Iranian missiles capable of hitting "carriers in the sea" with great precision

JEDDAH: Iran “will not wage war against any nation,” President Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday — hours after two drones launched by Iran-backed Houthi militias in Yemen targeted civilians in southern Saudi Arabia.

Rouhani's statement sounded a note of restraint after the United States announced more troop deployments to the Middle East.

“Iran will not wage war against any nation,” he said in a speech broadcast live on state TV. “Despite all of the Americans’ efforts in the region and their desire to cut off our ties with all of the world and their desire to keep Iran secluded, they have been unsuccessful.”

But he was also contradicted by the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Gen. Hossein Salami, who said Iran’s ballistic missile technology had changed the balance of power in the Middle East.

“These missiles can hit, with great precision, carriers in the sea ... they are domestically produced and are difficult to intercept and hit with other missiles,” Salami said.

He said Iran's ballistic missile technology had changed the balance of power in the Middle East.


This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

Before both men spoke, Saudi air defenses intercepted and shot down two Houthi drones packed with explosives. One targeted a civilian area in the southern city of Abha, and the second was shot down in Yemeni air space. There were no casualties, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen said.

Rouhani’s offer to avoid war was “the height of hypocrisy,” the Saudi political analyst and international relations scholar Dr. Hamdan Al-Shehri told Arab News.

“Rouhani is the biggest hypocrite in the world,” he said. “On the one hand, he is saying that Iran does not seek a conflict with anybody, and on the other it is launching attacks through its militias on oil tankers, oil pipelines, civilian airports and holy cities.

“This is nothing but the height of hypocrisy. Who does he think he is fooling with those words? Why are they enriching uranium? Why are they seeking nuclear bombs? What have they done over the past four decades? They have only caused trouble. They have only fanned sectarian flames in the region.”

The Saudi Cabinet, meeting in Jeddah, also condemned the Houthi attacks on Saudi civilians, and last week’s terrorist attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, widely blamed on Iran. 


Confrontation fears

Fears of a confrontation between Iran and its long-time foe the United States have mounted since Thursday when two oil tankers were attacked near the strategic Strait of Hormuz shipping lane, which Washington blamed on Tehran.

Iran denied involvement in the attacks and said on Monday it would soon breach limits on how much enriched uranium it can stockpile under a 2015 nuclear deal, which had sought to limit its nuclear capabilities.

Exceeding the uranium cap at the heart of the accord would prompt a diplomatic crisis, forcing the other signatories, which include China, Russia and European powers, to confront Iran.

The standoff drew a call for caution from China. Its top diplomat warned that the world should not open a “Pandora’s Box” in the Middle East, as he denounced US pressure on Iran and called on it not to drop out of the landmark nuclear deal.

Russia urged restraint on all sides.

On Monday, Iranian officials made several assertive comments about security, including the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, who said Tehran was responsible for security in the Gulf and urged US forces to leave the region.

Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan on Monday announced the deployment of about 1,000 more troops to the Middle East for what he said were defensive purposes, citing concerns about a threat from Iran.

The new US deployment is in addition to a 1,500-troop increase announced last month in response to tanker attacks in May. Washington previously tightened sanctions, ordering all countries and companies to halt imports of Iranian oil or be banished from the global financial system.

'Nuclear blackmail'

Iran’s announcement on Monday that it would soon breach limits on how much enriched uranium it can stockpile under the deal was denounced by a White House National Security Council spokesman as “nuclear blackmail.”

The move further undermines the nuclear pact, but Rouhani said on Monday the collapse of the deal would not be in the interests of the region or the world.

The nuclear deal seeks to head off any pathway to an Iranian nuclear bomb in return for the removal of most international sanctions.

Speaking in Beijing, Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi said the United States should not use “extreme pressure” to resolve issues with Iran.

Wang told reporters China, a close energy partner of Iran, was “of course, very concerned” about the situation in the Gulf and with Iran, and called on all sides to ease tension.

“We call on all sides to remain rational and exercise restraint, and not take any escalatory actions that irritate regional tensions, and not open a Pandora’s box,” Wang said.

“In particular, the US side should alter its extreme pressure methods,” Wang said. “Any unilateral behavior has no basis in international law. Not only will it not resolve the problem, it will only create an even greater crisis.”

Wang also said the Iran nuclear deal was the only feasible way to resolve its nuclear issue, and urged Iran to be prudent.

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the EU would only react to any breach if the International Atomic Energy Agency formally identified one.

The Trump administration says the deal, negotiated by Democratic President Barack Obama, was flawed as it is not permanent, does not address Iran’s missile program and does not punish it for waging proxy wars in other Middle East countries.