US Navy explosives experts believe a drone strike targeted an oil tanker that came under attack off the coast of Oman, killing two on board including one from the UK.
The strike on the oil tanker Mercer Street on Thursday night marks the first known fatal attack after years of assaults on commercial shipping in the region linked to tensions with Iran over its tattered nuclear deal.
While no one has claimed the attack in the Arabian Sea, Israeli officials alleged Tehran launched the drone strike.
Iran did not directly acknowledge the attack, but it came as Tehran appears poised to take a tougher approach with the West as the country prepares to inaugurate a hard-line protege of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as president.
US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and guided missile destroyer USS Mitscher were escorting the Mercer Street as it headed to a safe port, the US Navy’s Middle East-based 5th Fleet said in a statement early on Saturday.
“US Navy explosives experts are aboard to ensure there is no additional danger to the crew, and are prepared to support an investigation into the attack,” the 5th Fleet said. “Initial indications clearly point to a (drone)-style attack.”
The 5th Fleet statement did not explain how it determined a drone caused the damage, although it described its experts finding “clear visual evidence that an attack had occurred” aboard the Mercer Street.
The drone attack blasted a hole through the top of the oil tanker’s bridge, a US official said.
The Mercer Street is managed by London-based Zodiac Maritime, part of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group.
The firm said the attack killed two crew members, one from the UK and the other from Romania. It did not name them or describe what happened in the assault. It said it believed no other crew members were harmed.
British maritime security firm Ambrey said the attack had killed one of its team members on board the vessel.
The Mercer Street, empty of cargo, had been on its way from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, at the time of the attack, Zodiac Maritime said.
The attack targeted the tanker just north east of the Omani island of Masirah, 185 miles south east of Oman’s capital Muscat.
Oman’s state-run news agency described the area as “beyond Omani regional waters” and said its forces responded to the tanker’s mayday call.
Zodiac Maritime said the Mercer Street’s owners are Japanese, without naming them. Shipping authority Lloyd’s List identified the vessel’s ultimate owner as Taihei Kaiun, which belongs to Tokyo-based Nippon Yusen Group.
Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid tweeted late on Friday that he spoke with British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab about the “need to respond severely” to the attack, although he stopped short of directly blaming Iran.
“Iran is not just an Israeli problem, but an exporter of terrorism, destruction and instability that affects the whole world,” Mr Lapid wrote. “We can never remain silent in the face of Iranian terrorism, which also harms freedom of navigation.”
Other Israel-linked ships have been targeted in recent months amid a shadow war between the two nations, with Israeli officials blaming the Islamic Republic for the assaults.
Israel in turn has been suspected in a series of major attacks targeting Iran’s nuclear programme, and Tehran saw its largest warship sink under mysterious circumstances recently in the nearby Gulf of Oman.