US says Iran forces boarded ship in international waters

The Liberian-flagged oil tanker Wila was eventually released by Iranian forces near the Strait of Hormuz.

    Two armed members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard inspect the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero, which was seized in the Strait of Hormuz on Friday, July 19, 2019 [File: Morteza Akhoondi/Mehr News Agency via AP]
    Two armed members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard inspect the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero, which was seized in the Strait of Hormuz on Friday, July 19, 2019 [File: Morteza Akhoondi/Mehr News Agency via AP]

    The United States military said Iranian forces boarded a civilian vessel in international waters in the Gulf.

    The US Central Command released a grainy black-and-white video on Twitter showing a helicopter near a large ship.

    "Today in international waters, Iranian forces, including two ships and an Iranian Sea King helicopter, overtook and boarded a ship called the Wila," the US Central Command said.

    According to Refinitiv tracking data, Wila - a Liberian-flagged oil tanker - was anchored near the United Arab Emirates port of Khor Fakkan.

    The Wila's registered owner is a Liberian firm called Bandit Shipping Co, managed by Greek firm IMS SA, according to UN records. Neither firm could be immediately reached.

    A US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the incident took place near the Strait of Hormuz - through which 20 percent of all oil traded passes - and the ship was released by Iranian forces after five hours. The official said the US military was not involved in anything other than monitoring the situation.

    US military officials did not offer any reason for Iran seizing the vessel. Iranian state media and officials did not immediately acknowledge the seizure or offer a reason for it. 

    Iran-US tensions

    Private maritime intelligence firm Dryad Global said it suspected two other ships had been intercepted by Iran's paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the Gulf over the last week as well, based on the ships' tracked behaviour.

    Tensions have escalated since 2018 when US President Donald Trump withdrew the US from a multinational accord that had lifted international sanctions off Iran in return for the freezing of its nuclear programme. Adopting a campaign of "maximum pressure", the Trump administration then reimposed crippling sanctions on the Iranian economy.

    During the heightened tensions between the two last year, a number of incidents occurred, including attacks on ships, the downing of drones, and the seizure of oil tankers in the strait.

    In July 2019, Iran briefly seized a British-flagged oil tanker in the Gulf after Britain seized the Iranian tanker Grace 1, accused of violating sanctions on Syria.

    The Guard seized at least six other ships last year over alleged fuel smuggling. 

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    SOURCE: News agencies