Skynews reports Armed personnel backed by Iran are suspected of seizing an oil tanker off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in what a Royal Navy threat centre called a “potential hijacking”.
The White House described reports about the Asphalt Princess as “deeply concerning”.
But Iran‘s Revolutionary Guards denied that its forces or allies were involved in any incident, claiming the allegations were a pretext for “hostile action” against Tehran, state television reported on its website.
It comes at a time of heightened tensions following a suspected Iranian drone attack on an Israeli-linked tanker less than a week ago that left a British national and a Romanian dead.
The UK, Israel and the United States have accused Iran of the assault and vowed to rsponds.
British officials – so far – don’t appear to regard the targeting of the Panama-flagged Asphalt Princess, operated by a company based in Dubai, as a new escalation, though there are clearly concerns about a ship allegedly being seized by Iranian-linked gunmen.
A security source said a group of eight or nine individuals were believed to have boarded the ship. “It was an unauthorised boarding in the Gulf of Oman,” the source said.
The tanker has no links to the UK or Israel.https://d-16187713621659897302.ampproject.net/2107240354000/frame.html
Aurora Intel, an open source intelligence website, said the vessel was owned by Prime Tanker LLC, which also owns a tanker called the Riat.
In 2019 – during a previous tanker crisis – Iran said it had seized the Riat vessel briefly because of alleged fuel smuggling.
It was not immediately clear why Asphalt Princess was taken.
The Royal Navy’s UK Maritime Trade Operations, which monitors shipping traffic in the Gulf, said the latest incident was a “potential hijack” that happened around 60 miles (97km) east of the port city of Fujairah.
A spokesperson for the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said: “We are urgently investigating an incident on a vessel off the UAE coast.”
Speaking in Washington, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said: “We’re monitoring this developing situation, and we are in close touch with London and other partners who around the world who are also monitoring. The first reports are deeply concerning.”
British special forces are already in the region following the suspected drone attack on the Mercer Street tanker last Thursday.
The team is assisting in the investigation into what happened.
The Mercer Street is Japanese owned, but was sailing with a Liberian Flag and is managed by Zodiac Maritime, a UK firm that is part of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group.
Iran’s ambassador to the UK was summoned by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office yesterday following the Mercer Street incident.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Iran must “face up to the consequences” of its actions, adding that the Mercer Street incident “was clearly an unacceptable and outrageous attack on commercial shipping, a UK national died”.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has promised to work with allies on a “concerted response”.
Israel has also urged a tough response.
The country is already locked in a shadow conflict with Iran.
Three other tankers linked to Israel have been targeted since February, while Iran has experienced a number of cyber attacks and mysterious explosions.
Shortly after 6am, the UKMTO updated its report of the “potential hijack” to say: “Boarders have left the vessel. Vessel is safe. Incident complete.”
British government sources earlier said that the Asphalt Princess was thought to have been seized off the coast of Fujairah, in the United Arab Emirates, by a “squad” of eight or nine armed men, who ordered it to change course.
The tanker had been bound for Sohar, a port on Oman’s northern coast when it was attacked at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz yesterday afternoon.
According to Aurora Intel, an open-source intelligence group, the vessel is owned by Prime Tankers LLC, the same company that owned the MT Riah, a ship seized by Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in 2019.
Quoting sources directly involved in the latest incident, Richard Meade, editor of the shipping website Lloyd’s List, said last night that “armed forces have boarded the vessel, which last signalled its position around 5pm London time, and are directing it towards Iran”.
The British government source said that officials were working on the assumption that Iran or one of its proxy militant groups was behind the seizing of the Asphalt Princess, which was carrying cement. No one from Britain was known to be on board.
Iranian media last night said that the IRGC denied being involved in the latest incident, and dismissed such claims as a pretext for “hostile action” against Tehran.
But Munro Anderson, of Dryad Maritime Security, said that the Iranian Navy, a separate branch of the military, may have seized the Asphalt Princess, while the IRGC were likely to be behind last week’s drone attack.
“It is likely that the Iranian Navy were acting autonomously and to separate triggers than those of the IRGC last week. Both are completely separate organisations accountable to separate elements in Iran,” he said.
At least four other ships in the area reported that they had lost control of steering about the same time as the Asphalt Princess. Iranian news agencies said that a Singaporean-based oil tanker had collided with a mine in the same area, although it was not clear if this was a related incident.
Anderson added that the Singapore-flagged tanker Golden Brilliant had also reported sighting a drone, and had reported this to the UKMTO.
The MoD’s maritime security agency had earlier yesterday flagged a “non-piracy” event about 70 miles east of Fujairah and warned nearby shipping to exercise extreme caution. It later described the incident as a “potential hijack”. There was an indication last night that the US navy was ready to send a vessel to the area. Reports emphasised that the intention was to monitor the situation, rather than prepare any military manoeuvres.
Asked whether Iran was threatening international shipping, and whether it was possible for Washington to work with the new hardline regime in Tehran, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said the reports of the hijacking were “deeply concerning”.
Abolfazl Shekarchi, Iran’s senior armed forces spokesman, denounced the reports of maritime incidents and hijacking in the Gulf area as “a kind of psychological warfare and setting the stage for new bouts of adventurism”, the Fars news agency said. Iran’s foreign ministry said that the reports were “suspicious” and warned against any effort to create a “false atmosphere” against Tehran.
Last Thursday a drone attack on an Israeli-managed tanker off the coast of Oman killed two crew members — a Briton, Adrian Underwood, and a Romanian. Underwood, an army veteran, was working as a security guard, employed by the Hereford-based maritime firm Ambrey. The US, Israel and Britain blamed Iran for the attack on the MT Mercer Street.
Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, said this week that Britain and its allies were preparing a “concerted response” to that attack, which he called “unlawful and callous”. The fallout escalated as Britain summoned Iran’s ambassador and Boris Johnson described the incident as “outrageous”.
Iran denied involvement in the attack, which was said to have been caused by one or more explosive drones, adding on Monday that it would respond promptly to any threat against its security.
Tensions have increased in Gulf waters and between Iran and Israel since 2018, when President Trump ditched Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with the US and five other world powers and reimposed sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.
Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline former chief justice known as the Butcher of Tehran, takes office as president of Iran on Thursday.
Speaking at a ceremony yesterday, at which he was officially endorsed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Raisi said he would seek to end the “tyranny” of US sanctions against his country and vowed that Iran would not bend to the “will of foreigners”.
Naftali Bennett, the Israeli prime minister, later repeated a warning to Iran, which is accused of supporting militant proxy groups across the region, including in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.
“They can’t sit calmly in Tehran while igniting the entire Middle East — that’s over,” Bennett said as he toured Israel’s northern border with senior military officials.
“We are working to enlist the whole world, but when the time comes, we know how to act alone. Iran knows the price that we’ll exact when anyone threatens our security.”
Israeli media reported that diplomats would present “hard evidence” to the United Nations Security Council showing Iran’s involvement in Thursday’s drone attack later today.