Conflicting stories have emerged hours after two tankers came under attack, above, (Photo Credit: IRIB News), near the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf of Oman early on Thursday amid rising tensions between the US and Iran and Japan’s mediating efforts to defuse the situation.
While it is not clear how the incidents unfolded, the operator of one of the tankers hit said its crew members saw a flying object approaching just before the explosion.
Yutaka Katada, president of Kokuka Sangyo which operates the tanker Kokuka Courageous, said the vessel was hit twice several hours apart by some object but not by a torpedo as reported by media.
Hours after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran for the attacks without providing any tangible proof, the US Central Command (CENTCOM) released a video showing Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps removing a mine from Kokuka Courageous.
It released a timeline and photographs suggesting that the US military observed Iranian vessels returning to the tanker to retrieve the unexploded mine, The Washington Post reported.
The release of the video appeared to be a desperate attempt by the US to convince the world about Iran’s direct involvement in the twin attacks.
President Donald Trump said in an interview with Fox News that the CENTCOM video exposes Tehran’s guilt.
Trump said the administration would discuss steps to counter Iran adding that Washington will not take Thursday’s incident lightly.
Iran, smarting under additional US sanctions and facing international isolation, may block the Strait of Hormuz to stop oil shipments. But such blockage will not last long, Trump said.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif hit back by saying the CENTCOM video and Pompeo’s allegations lacked factual or circumstantial evidence, adding that the B team of the US — Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE — is moving to a plan B which is sabotage diplomacy.
Zarif called US accusations absurd especially when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei were holding talks in Tehran to secure peace and stability in the region.
Many view Thursday’s attacks as a timely move by some unknown player to undermine Abe’s diplomacy.
Japan has reason to worry as tankers from the Middle East carrying 80% of its oil imports pass through the Strait of Hormuz.
Thursday’s incident comes a month after four vessels were attacked near the Strait of Hormuz, the strategic passage from the Persian Gulf to the open ocean.
Tehran Times, citing Islamic Republic News Agency, said 23 crew members of the Norwegian-owned tanker Front Altair and 21 crew members of Kokuka Courageous were safely evacuated to its southern shores by Iranian rescuers.
The United States Fifth Fleet in Bahrain said it has sent USS Bainbridge to render help.
Front Altair, a 111,000-tonne oil tanker chartered by Taiwan’s state-owned CPC Corp, was carrying 75,000 tonnes of naphtha from the UAE port of Ruwais to the Taiwanese port of Kaohsiung when it was “suspected of being hit by a torpedo,” CEO of CPC’s petrochemical division, Wul-Fang, told Reuters.
Front Altair was drifting and on fire but it had not sunk, said Robert Macleod, chief executive of the company Frontline which owns the vessel.
The tanker was attacked at 6.03am and three explosions were reported on board, a company statement said.
Kokuka Courageous came under attack around 7am. One of its crew members was slightly injured in the blast.
The tanker was carrying 25,000 tonnes of methanol from Saudi Arabia to Singapore when it came under attack.