Two oil tankers have been evacuated in the Gulf of Oman following reported attacks on the vessels, prompting international alarm and sending oil prices spiralling upwards.
Scores of crew members from the Marshall Islands-flagged Front Altair and the Panama-flagged Kokuka Courageous abandoned the ships on Thursday after sending out distress calls amid explosions on board.
The cause of the blasts was unclear, but one operator said it suspected its ship had been hit by a torpedo.
Iran’s Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported that Iranian search and rescue teams picked up 44 sailors – 21 from the Kokuka Courageous and 23 from the Front Altair – following the incidents and took them to the nearby port of Jask.
The US Navy’s Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet said it also assisted the tankers after receiving two distress calls.
A statement by the Kokuka Courageous’s management company, BSM Ship Management (Singapore), said 21 crew members of the vessel abandoned the ship after an incident on board which resulted in damage to its hull’s starboard side. The vessel was about 70 nautical miles (nearly 130km) from Fujairah in the United Arab Emirate (UAE) and about 14 nautical miles (26km) from the coast of Iran.
“The Kokuka Courageous remains in the area and is not in any danger of sinking. The cargo of methanol is intact,” the statement said. One crew member was injured during the incident and was receiving medical treatment on another vessel nearby, it added.
Front Altair, meanwhile, had been chartered by Taiwan’s state oil refiner CBC Corp and was carrying 75,000 tonnes of naphtha, a petrochemical feedstock, when it was “suspected of being hit by a torpedo” around noon Taiwan time (04:00GMT), Wu I-Fang, CPC’s petrochemical business division CEO, told the Reuters news agency. He said all crew members had been rescued.
Norway‘s Frontline shipping company, which owns the Front Altair, said its vessel was on fire.
Frontline said the ship was afloat, denying a report by Iran’s IRNA agency that it had sunk, and said the crew of 23 comprised of 11 Russians, 11 Filipinos and one Georgian.
They were rescued by the Hyundai Dubai, transferred to an Iranian navy vessel and are destined for the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, Frontline added.
Oil prices surge
Thursday’s incidents, which took place a month after four other tankers were damaged in the same region, spurred a surge in Brent crude oil prices and sent the commodity rising by more than three percent to about $62 a barrel.
The Gulf of Oman lies at the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz. One third of all oil traded by sea, which amounts to 20 percent of oil traded worldwide, passes through the strait.
Paolo d’Amico, chairman of the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners (INTERTANKO), said he was concerned about further disruption in the area, warning the “supply to the entire Western world could be at risk”.
“I am extremely worried about the safety of our crews going through the Strait of Hormuz,” d’Amico said in a statement.
Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry, president of the World Maritime University, added that any major disruption of shipping in the Gulf would “have significant consequences on shipping markets because it affects oil tanker capacity as well as the cost of operation”.
“It also has implications for insurance, the crew and additional protective measures needed to keep ships moving,” she told Al Jazeera from Malmo in Sweden.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif meanwhile described the incidents as “suspicious”, with the reported attacks coinciding with a meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Suspicious doesn't begin to describe what likely transpired this morning.
Iran's proposed Regional Dialogue Forum is imperative.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) June 13, 2019
Meanwhile, Japan’s Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Hiroshige Seko told reporters: “A tanker carrying Japan-related goods was attacked. There were no injuries among the crew members. They got off the tanker. There were no Japanese members.”
Other international powers also voiced concern over the incidents, including France and Britain, with the former calling on all parties in the Gulf to de-escalate tensions and keep navigation routes free.
Regional tensions rise
Frictions have escalated in the Middle East in recent weeks, including over the earlier attack on oil tankers off the coast of the UAE last month.
US National Security Advisor John Bolton blamed Iran for the the May 12 incidents, without offering evidence.
The UAE, meanwhile, claimed the preliminary findings of a probe into the attacks revealed they were part of a “coordinated” operation likely carried out by a state actor, but stopped short of pinning the blame on any specific country.
Iran has denied being involved in the incidents in May.
Tensions between the United States and Iran are simmering after more than a year of increasingly fractious relations unleashed by President Donald Trump’s decision in May 2018 to withdraw from a landmark nuclear deal.
Under the 2015 agreement, Iran agreed to scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
Since pulling out of the nuclear deal, the White House has rolled out a “maximum pressure” policy against Iran. As part of that, Trump’s administration reimposed punitive sanctions and moved to cut the country’s oil exports to zero, sending its economy into freefall.
The US also blacklisted Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a “terrorist group”, which prompted a tit-for-tat response from Tehran. Last month, Washington bolstered its military presence in the Gulf in response to an unspecified threat from Iran.
Since then, a war of words between the rivals has continued to escalate, with Tehran accusing the US of waging “psychological warfare” and “economic terrorism” against Iran.