FUJAIRAH, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The hijackers who captured a vessel off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in the Gulf of Oman left the targeted ship on Wednesday, the British navy reported, ending a ship seizure that revived fears of an escalation in Mideast waters.
The incident, described by the British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations the night before as a “potential hijack,” ended with as much mystery as it began.
While the details of who briefly impounded the asphalt tanker and why remain unclear, the seizure once again reveals a region on edge as Iran and the United States seek to broker a resolution to their standoff over Tehran’s tattered 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
Over the past years, the rising tensions have played out in the waters of the Persian Gulf, where just last week a drone attack on an oil tanker linked to an Israeli billionaire off the coast of Oman killed two crew members. The West blamed Iran for the raid, which marked the first known fatal assault in the yearslong shadow war targeting vessels in Mideast waters. Iran denied involvement.
Late on Tuesday, intruders boarded a Panama-flagged asphalt tanker called Asphalt Princess sailing off the coast of Fujairah, authorities said. The official news agency of Oman’s military said it received reports that the Asphalt Princess had been hijacked and dispatched Royal Air Force maritime patrol aircraft and naval vessels “to contribute to securing international waters.”
Possible signs of trouble began to emerge that evening when six oil tankers off the coast of Fujairah announced around the same time via their Automatic Identification System trackers that they were “not under command,” according to MarineTraffic.com. That typically means a vessel has lost power and can no longer steer.
Satellite-tracking data for the Asphalt Princess had showed it gradually heading toward Iranian waters off the port of Jask early Wednesday, according to MarineTraffic.com. Hours later, however, it stopped and changed course toward Oman, just before the British navy group declared the hijackers had departed and the vessel was now “safe.”
The owner of the Asphalt Princess, listed as Emirati free zone-based Glory International, could not immediately be reached for comment.
The U.S. military’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet and the British Defense Ministry also did not respond to requests for comment. The Emirati government did not immediately acknowledge the incident.
Apparently responding to Tuesday’s ship seizure, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh came out and denied that Iran played any role. He described the recent maritime attacks in the Persian Gulf as “completely suspicious.”
The Gulf of Oman sits near the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a fifth of all oil passes. Fujairah, on the UAE’s eastern coast, is a main port in the region for ships to take on new oil cargo, pick up supplies or trade out crew.
For the past two years, after then-President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from Iran’s nuclear deal in 2018 and imposed crushing sanctions, the waters off Fujairah have witnessed a series of explosions and hijackings. The U.S. Navy blamed Iran for a series of limpet mine attacks on vessels that damaged tankers.
In the summer of 2019, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard troops detained a British-flagged tanker, the Stena Impero, near the Strait of Hormuz. Last year, an oil tanker sought by the U.S. for allegedly circumventing sanctions on Iran was hijacked off the Emirati coast and later ended up in Iran, though Tehran never acknowledged the incident.
And in January, armed Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops stormed a South Korean tanker and forced the ship to change course and travel to Iran. While Iran claimed it detained the ship over pollution concerns, it appeared to link the seizure to negotiations over billions of dollars in Iranian assets frozen in South Korean banks.
–DeBre reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
About the photo: The oil tanker Mercer Street, which came under attack last week off Oman, is seen moored off Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021. The British navy warned of a “potential hijack” of another ship off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in the Gulf of Oman on Tuesday, though the circumstances remain unclear. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)
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