The US Navy’s Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet is assisting two tankers in the Gulf of Oman after receiving distress calls from the vessels amid a “reported attack”.
“US naval forces in the region received two separate distress calls at 6:12am local time and a second one at 7:00am,” the fleet said in a statement issued on Thursday. “US Navy ships are in the area and are rendering assistance.”
The statement came after the UK’s Maritime Trade Operations, which is run by the British navy, put out an alert earlier on Thursday claiming an unspecified incident had taken place in the area. It did not elaborate further but said it was investigating the incident and urged “extreme caution” amid heightened United States-Iran tensions.
The Reuters news agency, citing four shipping and trade sources, reported two tankers were evacuated following an unspecified incident. The sources identified the tankers as the Marshal Islands-flagged Front Altair and the Panama-flagged Kokuka Courageous.
A statement by the Kokuka Courageous’ management company, BSM Ship Management (Singapore), said 21 crew of the vessel abandoned ship after an incident on board which resulted in damage to the ship’s hull starboard side. The vessel is about 70 nautical miles from the United Arab Emirate (UAE) of Fujairah and about 14 nautical miles from the coast of Iran.
“The Kokuka Courageous remains in the area and is not in any danger of sinking. The cargo of methanol is intact,” the statement said. One crew member was injured during the incident and was receiving medical treatment on another vessel nearby, it added.
Front Altair had been chartered by Taiwan’s state oil refiner CBC Corp and was carrying 75,000 tonnes of naphtha, a petrochemical feedstock, when it was “suspected of being hit by a torpedo” around noon Taiwan time (0400GMT), Wu I-Fang, CPC’s petrochemical business division CEO, told Reuters. He said all crew members had been rescued.
Norway’s Frontline shipping company, which owns the Front Altair, said its vessel was on fire.
Iranian media reported, without offering any evidence, that there had been an explosion in the area targeting oil tankers. The Islamic Republic News Agency reported that Iranian search and rescue teams had picked up 44 sailors from the vessels and taken them to the port of Jask.
Thursday’s maritime alert came after attacks last month on oil tankers off the coast of the UAE.
US National Security Adviser John Bolton said Iran was likely behind the May 12 incidents, without offering evidence.
The UAE, meanwhile, claimed the preliminary findings of a probe into the attacks revealed they were part of a “coordinated” operation likely carried out by a state actor, but stopped short of pinning the blame on any specific country.
Iran has denied being involved in the incidents in May.
Tensions between the United States and Iran have simmered in recent weeks after more than a year of increasingly fractious relations unleashed by President Donald Trump’s decision in May 2018 to withdraw from a landmark nuclear deal.
Under the 2015 agreement, Iran agreed to scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
Since pulling out of the nuclear deal, the White House has rolled out a “maximum pressure” policy against Iran. As part of that, Trump’s administration reimposed punitive sanctions and moved to cut the country’s oil exports to zero, sending its economy into freefall.
The US also blacklisted Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a “terrorist group”, which prompted a tit-for-tat response from Tehran. Last month, Washington bolstered its military presence in the Gulf in response to an unspecified threat.
Since then, a war of words between the rivals has continued to escalate, with Tehran accusing the US of waging “psychological warfare” and “economic terrorism” with its various moves.
Al Jazeera and news agencies