Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 September 2019

Iran 'almost certainly' to blame for oil tanker attacks, says UK

US earlier said it has concluded that Iran was behind attacks on two vessels in Gulf of Oman

Stay here for The National's rolling coverage of the latest developments following the attack on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman including regional and international reaction.

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Iranian boat fired missile at US drone

Just hours before Thursday's attack, a missile fired from an Iranian boat missed a US drone, a US official has told CNN, plunging into the water.

The MQ-9 drone watched Iranian vessels approaching the oil tankers, the official said, but did not reveal if it saw the attack take place.

The source added a US reaper drone was shot down by Houthi rebels using what is thought to be an Iranian missile in the days before the oil tanker attack.

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US preparing 'contingency plans' if Gulf situation deteriorates

The US is working on two parallel tracks in consulting with allies and preparing contingency plans, following the attacks, US acting defence secretary Patrick Shanahan said on Friday.

“We have an international situation in the Middle East. It's not a US situation,” Mr Shanahan told reporters at the Pentagon, highlighting the ships attacked in the last few weeks in the Gulf are from Norway, Japan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The focus, he added, “is to build international consensus to this international problem.”

He said that national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have been “very helpful” in building this consensus, and that publicising evidence from the US military side is aimed at the same thing.

Mr Shanahan noted that “fifteen per cent of the world's oil flows through the Strait of Hormuz”. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has threatened to close this strait in the past. “We obviously need to make contingency plans should the situation deteriorate,” he said.

US President Donald Trump told Fox News on Friday that if Iran were to block the Strait of Hormuz, "it's not going to be closed for long.”

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UK "almost certain" Iran to blame

The British Foreign Office has declared it is "almost certain" the IRGC is behind the 13 June attack. In a statement, it said no other state or non-state actor "could plausibly have been responsible, and blamed the state for the May 12 attacks on four oil tankers near the port of Fujairah.

"Our own assessment leads us to conclude that responsibility for the attacks almost certainly lies with Iran," said Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

"These latest attacks build on a pattern of destabilising Iranian behaviour and pose a serious danger to the region."

Mr Hunt added that international norms had been violated by attacks on civilian shipping, and called on Iran to "urgently cease all forms of destabilising activity".

Meanwhile, Russia's Foreign Ministry said those seeking to name a perpetrator quickly were making "deliberate efforts to whip up tensions, which are largely encouraged by the United States’ Iranophobic policy".

"Moscow resolutely condemns the attacks whoever might be behind them," the ministry said in a statement. "It is inadmissible to place responsibility for the incident on anyone until a thorough and unbiased international investigation is over."

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Arab League chief warns of rising Gulf War risk

The head of the Arab League, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, has warned that a deteriorating security situation was a powder keg capable of developing into all-out war.

Speaking in New York alongside UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres, Mr Aboul Gheit urged Iran to change course as the whole world stood to suffer if a conflict erupted.

“I detect and I see behaviour of a certain party in the Gulf that is deepening the confrontation,” he said. “Everybody has to restrain themselves and to revisit their actions and behaviour.

“It is a powder keg. Any wrong move might lead to ramifications that would take us back to 20 or 30 years ago, and war, so we have to be careful.”

Read more on Mr Aboul Gheit's comments here.

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Kuwait says no request for Security Council meeting

Mansour Al Otaibi, Kuwait's ambassador to the UN, told reporters that no member of the Security Council had requested a meeting about the Gulf of Oman tanker attacks.

Asked about the US video, he replied: "I cannot confirm that this is the Revolutionary Guard."

Pushed on whether there would be further discussions about the incidents and whether Kuwait might mediate, he said: "Maybe. We already offered that many times before."

Kuwait holds the Security Council presidency this month.

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Tanker crew was forced on to Iranian vessel, insurer says

Iranian forces were likely responsible for Thursday's attacks, according to a report seen by Bloomberg from DNK, the insurer of one of the ships.

The Norwegian insurer has raised its assessment on the threat to tankers in the Arabian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz and North Western Gulf of Oman to high following the incident, it said in the report. Anti-ship missiles fired from a naval asset were probably used in the attacks, it said.

Details on the crew’s evacuation from the Front Altair tanker also emerged in the report from DNK, which insures the vessel. The crew was forced to board an Iranian vessel, having already been picked up by a nearby commercial vessel.

Iran’s navy “demanded that the crew were transferred to them,” DNK said in the circular. The crew was then taken to the Iranian port of Jask.

DNK, formally known as the Norwegian Shipowners’ Mutual War Risks Insurance Association, declined to comment on the report. The explosion on the Front Altair “was caused by a hostile attack,” it said in a statement on Friday, without assigning responsibility.

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Trump: Attacks has 'Iran written all over it'

US President Donald Trump said Iran's resposibility over the tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman was exposed by the United States.

In an interview with Fox News, Mr Trump said "Iran did do it", citing the video released by the US military purporting to show an Iranian boat removing an unexploded mine from one of the vessels. The mine had "Iran written all over it," he said.

"They're a nation of terror and they've changed a lot since I've been president, I can tell you," Mr Trump said.

The US leader also dismissed the danger of the Strait of Hormuz being closed by Tehran.

They're not going to be closing it. It's not going to be closed, it's not going to be closed for long and they know it. They've been told in very strong terms," he said.

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Gargash slams Iranian response to attacks

The UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr Anwar Gargash, has criticised the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s response to the further escalation of tensions in the region following attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday.

“Every single day Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif’s reference to team B becomes more farcical & his credibility diminishing,” Dr Gargash said on Twitter.

Mr Zarif regularly uses the term "B Team" to refer to US National Security Adviser John Bolton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed.

“Public relations is no real substitute to constructive policies. De-escalation in current situation requires wise actions not empty words,” Dr Gargash said.

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Iran releases video of tanker crew

Iran's English-language Press TV has broadcast footage of rescued crew members from one of the two tankers attacked in on Thursday, saying they were all in "full health".

The video begins by showing the 23 crew members of the Front Altair in a room watching what seems to be Iranian state television's coverage of a speech by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

"Everything is OK," said one of the vessel's "chief officers", presenting himself as Russian and thanking Iran for its "hospitality".

Press TV said 11 of the crew were Russian, 11 Filipino and one Georgian. A woman was also seen in the footage with her hair and face partially covered by a veil.

The official news agency Irna had claimed the Iranian navy rescued all 44 crew members from the two tankers and transferred them to the nearby port of Bandar-e-Jask, but the US Central Command said the 21 crew of the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous were picked up by a Dutch tug and transferred not to an Iranian vessel but to the destroyer USS Bainbridge.

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China calls for 'dialogue and consultations' after attacks

China on Friday called for "dialogue" after Washington accused Iran of being behind attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman.

"We hope that all the relevant sides can properly resolve their differences and resolve the conflict through dialogue and consultations," said foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang at a regular press briefing, according to AFP.

"This conforms with the interests of regional countries, and also conforms with the interests of the international community," he added.

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Iran's Rouhani criticises US over nuclear deal withdrawal

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told the leaders of a China-led security bloc, including Russia and India, on Friday that US actions pose a serious threat to stability in the Middle East.

Mr Rouhani did not mention the Gulf of Oman tanker attacks but focused his criticism on US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal last year from the world powers’ 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

He said Iran continued to honour the accord. “Iran asks the remaining participants in the nuclear deal to immediately [meet] their commitments,” he told the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, according to Reuters.

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Britain backing US assessment of Iran role in attacks

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the UK is working on the basis that Iran is responsible for attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday, and warned Tehran that these actions were “deeply unwise”.

“This is deeply worrying and comes at a time of already huge tension. I have been in contact with (US Secretary of State Mike) Pompeo and, while we will be making our own assessment soberly and carefully, our starting point is obviously to believe our US allies,” Mr Hunt said.

“We are taking this extremely seriously and my message to Iran is that if they have been involved it is a deeply unwise escalation which poses a real danger to the prospects of peace and stability in the region,” he added.

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Crude oil prices extend gains on 'military dimension' in Gulf

Oil rose for a second day on Friday, extending sharp gains following the attacks. Brent crude futures were up 50 cents, or 0.8 per cent, at $61.81 a barrel by 3:13 GMT, having settled up 2.2 per cent on Thursday.

US West Texas Intermediate crude futures rose 21 cents, or 0.4 per cent, to $52.49 a barrel. WTI also closed up 2.2 per cent in the previous session.

“The events in the Gulf would now appear to have taken on an overt military dimension and we are waiting to see what action the US Fifth Fleet and other military resources in the region may take,” Tom O’Sullivan, founder of energy and security consultancy Mathyos Advisory, told Reuters.

Oil prices were up as much as 4.5 per cent on Thursday, putting the brakes on a slide in prices in recent weeks over concerns about global demand.

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Owner of Japanese tanker says crew saw 'flying objects'

Yutaka Katada, president of shipping company Kokuka Sangyo Ltd. points to a picture of their tanker Kokuka Courageous. Kyodo News via Reuters
Yutaka Katada, president of shipping company Kokuka Sangyo Ltd. points to a picture of their tanker Kokuka Courageous. Kyodo News via Reuters

The Associated Press is reporting that the operator of the Japanese ship, the Kokuka Courageous, one of the vessels attacked in the Gulf of Oman, says sailors on board saw “flying objects” just before the attack, suggesting the tanker wasn’t damaged by mines.

That account contradicts what the US military has said as it released a video it says shows Iranian forces removing an unexploded limpet mine from one of the two ships in the suspected attack.

The Japanese tanker carrying petroleum products to Singapore and Thailand was attacked twice while traveling in the area near the Strait of Hormuz on Thursday, damaging the tanker and forcing all 21 crewmembers to evacuate.

Company president Yutaka Katada said on Friday he believes the flying objects seen by the sailors could be bullets, and denied possibility of mines or torpedoes because the damages were above the ship’s waterline. He called reports of mine attack “false”, AP said.

Mr Katada said the crewmembers also spotted an Iranian naval ship nearby, but did not specify whether that was before or after the attacks. The tanker survived the first attack that hit near the engine room, followed by another causing damage to the star-board side toward the back.

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US military releases video of Iranian forces trying to remove mine

The US Central Command released a video late on Thursday that it says shows Iranian forces removing an unexploded limpet mine from one of the two ships targeted in the Gulf of Oman.

The black-and-white footage, released with a Centcom statement laying out a timeline of events, appears to show members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard removing an unexploded mine from one of the ships.

Centcom also released photographs showing the apparent mine, which attaches to the side of a ship magnetically, before it was removed later in the day.

Spokesman Captain Bill Urban said: “ US Naval Forces in the region received [on Thursday] two separate distress calls at 6.12am local time from the motor tanker (M/T) Altair and a second one at 7am local time from the M/T Kokuka Courageous.”

Both vessels “were in international waters in the Gulf of Oman”, he said.

At 8.09am, according to the statement, a US aircraft observed an “Iran Revolutionary Guard Hendijan class patrol boat and multiple IRGC fast attack craft/fast inshore attack in the vicinity of Altair”.

Later at 9.26am “the Iranians requested that the motor vessel Hyundai Dubai, which had rescued the sailors from the M/T Altair, to turn the crew over to the Iranian FIACs”.

“The motor vessel Hyundai Dubai complied with the request and transferred the crew of the M/T Altair to the Iranian FIACs,” it said.

“At 11.05am local time USS Bainbridge approaches the Dutch tug Coastal Ace, which had rescued the crew of 21 sailors from the M/T Kokuka Courageous who had abandoned their ship after discovering a probable unexploded limpet mine on their hull following an initial explosion.”

Captain Urban added that “the Hendijan patrol boat appeared to attempt to get to the tug Coastal Ace before USS Bainbridge, the mariners were rescued by USS Bainbridge at the request of the master of the M/T Kokuka Courageous” and “the rescued sailors are currently aboard USS Bainbridge”.

But at 4.10pm local time, Centcom said “an IRGC Gashti Class patrol boat approached the M/T Kokuka Courageous and was observed and recorded removing the unexploded limpet mine from the M/T Kokuka Courageous”.

The US military said Washington and its partners “will take all necessary measures to defend ourselves and our interests. “ It added that the “attacks are a clear threat to international freedom of navigation and freedom of commerce”.

“The United States has no interest in engaging in a new conflict in the Middle East. However, we will defend our interests,” Centcom concluded.

The US is sending another destroyer, the USS Mason, to the region to help with the rescue efforts.

Iran said on Friday it was responsible for maintaining the security of the Strait of Hormuz and called accusations that it was responsible for the attacks "alarming".

"We are in charge of maintaining security of the Strait and we rescued the crew of those attacked tankers in the shortest possible time ... US Secretary of State [Mike] Pompeo's accusations towards Iran is alarming," Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said.

Updated: June 15, 2019 05:00 AM

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