Amid tension with Iran, US Navy assisting 2 Gulf of Oman tankers targeted in 'reported attack'

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United States Navy fighter jets were flying missions from an aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea on Saturday, a signal to Iran of America’s global military reach. (June 8) AP, AP

U.S. Navy ships rushed to the aid of two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday after an apparent attack left at least one in flames and forced evacuation of both less than 20 miles from the coast of Iran.

“We are aware of the reported attack on shipping vessels in the Gulf of Oman,” the Navy’s 5th Fleet said in a brief statement. “U.S. Naval Forces in the region received two separate distress calls at 6:12 a.m. local (Bahrain) time and a second one at 7:00 a.m. U.S. Navy ships are in the area and are rendering assistance.”

Iran’s Islamic Republic News Agency said Iranian search and rescue teams picked up the 21 sailors aboard the Kokuka Courageous and 23 from the Front Altair and evacuated them to the nearby Iranian port of Jask.

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BSM Ship Management, owner of the Kokuka Courageous, said it had launched a “full-scale emergency response following a security incident” aboard the Panamanian-flagged ship. 

One crew member was slightly injured and the incident resulted in damage to the ship’s hull starboard side, the company said. The Courageous, stranded 16 miles off the coast of Iran and 80 off of the United Arab Emirates, was in no danger of sinking, BSM added.

The  Marshal Islands-flagged Front Altair was ablaze, owner Frontline shipping of Norway said. Taiwan’s state oil refiner CBC Corp had charted the ship, which carried 75,000 tons of the petrochemical naphtha, when it was “suspected of being hit by a torpedo,” Wu I-Fang, CPC’s petrochemical business division CEO, told Reuters news agency.

Japan’s Trade Ministry said the two vessels had “Japan-related cargo” as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was wrapping up a high-stakes visit in Tehran that sought to ease tensions between Iran and the United States.

Benchmark Brent crude spiked at one point by as much 4% in trading following the reported attack, to over $62 a barrel, highlighting how crucial the area remains to global energy supplies. A third of all oil traded by sea passes through the strait, which is the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf.

The apparent attack Thursday was the second in a month. Saudi Arabia said in May that four oil tankers were sabotaged off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in attacks that caused “significant damage” to the vessels. One of the ships was en route to pick up Saudi oil to take to the United States.

That drew a pointed response from President Trump, aimed at Iran.

“It’s going to be a bad problem for Iran if something happens, I can tell you that,” Trump said after that attack. “They’re not going to be happy.” 

An investigation blamed explosive sea mines, and Saudi Arabia and the United States blamed Iran for those attacks. Iran denied involvement, although Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen also have launched missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia.

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The timing of Thursday’s reported attack was especially sensitive as Abe’s high-stakes diplomacy mission was underway in Iran. On Wednesday, after talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Abe warned that any “accidental conflict” that could be sparked amid the heightened U.S.-Iran tensions must be avoided.

His message came just hours after Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels attacked a Saudi airport, striking its arrivals hall before dawn and wounding 26 people Wednesday.

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Abe met with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Thursday, the second and final day of his visit. There were no immediate details about what they discussed.

Tensions have escalated in the Mideast as Iran appears poised to break the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, an accord that the Trump administration pulled out of last year.

Iran’s nuclear deal, reached in 2015 by China, Russia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the U.S., saw Tehran agree to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of crippling sanctions. Western powers feared Iran’s atomic program could allow it to build nuclear weapons, although Iran long has insisted its program was for peaceful purposes.

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