Dubai, United Arab Emirates — Two oil tankers near the strategic Strait of Hormuz were reportedly attacked on Thursday, leaving one ablaze and adrift as sailors were evacuated from both. The U.S. Navy rushed to assist and Iran reportedly said it did, as well, amid heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran.
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 latest incidents come after the. Iran has denied being involved, but it comes as Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen also have launched missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia.
Cmdr. Joshua Frey, a 5th Fleet spokesman, said the U.S. Navy was assisting the two vessels that he described as being hit in a “reported attack.” He did not say how the ships were attacked or who was suspected of being behind the assault.
Iran’s government news agency, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), said 44 sailors from two damaged vessels were picked up by Iranian search and rescue teams in the Gulf Thursday, the Reuters news agency reported. IRNA cited an unnamed informed source. The sailors were taken to the Iranian port of Jask, IRNA said.
The Norwegian shipping firm Frontline confirmed Thursday that one of its tankers, the Front Altair, was in flames after an incident in the Gulf of Oman, according to Reuters. It cited the Norwegian newspaper VG, which quoted a company spokesman. The spokesman said all 23 crew members were taken onto a nearby vessel.
Dryad Global, a maritime intelligence firm, said the Front Altair was “on fire and adrift.”
Reuters also quoted a senior official of Taiwanese state oil refiner CPC Corp as saying the Front Altair, a tanker chartered by CPC to carry fuel from the Middle East, was apparently hit by a torpedo.
Front Altair had been loaded at a port in the Gulf with naptha, a petroleum product, and was on its way to the Far East.
Separately, a spokesman for BSM Ship Management told Reuters one of the vessels it manages, the Kokuka Courageous, was damaged in “a security incident” in the Gulf of Oman Thursday. He said all 21 crew members abandoned ship and were quickly rescued, adding that the incident damaged the ship’s starboard hull.
“The Kokuka Courageous remains in the area and is not in any danger of sinking. The cargo of methanol is intact,” Reuters quotes the spokesman as saying.
Reuters reported that a shipping broker said there was an explosion “suspected from an outside attack” on the Kokuka Courageous – and it may have involved a magnetic mine. Japanese shipping firm Kokuka Sangyo, the vessel’s owner, said it was struck twice in three hours, Reuters added.
Officials in the United Arab Emirates declined immediate comment on either incident.
The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, a maritime safety group run by the British navy, first put out the alert early Thursday, giving coordinates for the incident some 25 miles off the Iranian coastline.
The timing of Thursday’s reported attackswas especially sensitive, as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was visiting Iran on a high-stakes diplomacy mission. 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 the arrivals hall before dawn and wounding 26 people Wednesday.
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.
Meanwhile, in Tokyo, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, a top government spokesman, told reporters Abe’s trip was intended to help de-escalate tensions in the Mideast – but not specifically to mediate between Tehran and Washington.
His remarks were apparently meant to downplay and lower expectations amid uncertain prospects for Abe’s mission.
Tensions have escalated in the Mideast as Iran appears poised to break the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, an accord the Trump administration pulled out of last year.