Oil tanker in Gulf of Oman boarded by masked men in military uniforms

Vessel bound for Turkey from Iraq was once at the centre of a crisis between Iran and the United States.

a blue ship with the name galaxy leader written on it
The Galaxy Leader cargo ship, seized by Houthi fighters, approaching the port in the Red Sea off Yemen's province of Hodeidah [AFP]

Armed men wearing military uniforms and black masks have boarded an oil tanker near Oman, according to a British maritime security firm and the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) authority.

In the latest in a spate of shipping incidents in the region, about four or five men boarded the Marshall Islands-flagged St Nikolas at about 7:30am (03:30 GMT) on Thursday, some 50 nautical miles east of Sohar in Oman and then headed towards Bandar-e-Jask in Iran, according to Ambrey, the maritime security firm.

Tankertrackers.com, which tracks and reports global shipments of crude oil, identified the vessel as the St Nikolas and said it was carrying “Iraqi oil”. It said the tanker previously went by the name Suez Rajan and had been seized by the United States government for transporting sanctioned Iranian oil.

Ambrey also said the recently renamed tanker was previously prosecuted and fined for carrying sanctioned Iranian oil, which was confiscated by US authorities. The yearlong dispute ended with the US Justice Department seizing one million barrels of Iranian crude.

“Iran has previously taken action against those it has accused of cooperating with the US,” it added.

The British military’s UKTMO, which provides warnings to sailors in the Middle East, said the incident began in waters between Oman and Iran, and it had received a report from the ship’s security manager of hearing “unknown voices over the phone” alongside the ship’s captain.

Ambrey said that the men covered surveillance cameras as they boarded the vessel. As the tanker appeared to veer towards Bandar-e-Jask, its tracker was turned off, it added.

The St Nikolas was sailing from the Iraqi port of Basra to Turkey, according to Marine Traffic, a tracking website.

The Gulf of Oman, a key route for the oil industry that separates Oman and Iran, has witnessed a series of hijackings and attacks over the years, often involving Iran.

Greek shipping company Empire Navigation, which operates the vessel, acknowledged losing contact with it. It said a crew of 18 Filipinos and one Greek national were on board.

The company also said the vessel was carrying 145,000 tonnes of oil from Basra to Aliaga in Turkey.

Shipping in the region has been on heightened alert following weeks of drone and missile attacks by Yemen’s Houthis rebels in the Red Sea.

The Houthis have been attacking commercial vessels in the Red Sea to show support for Palestinian armed group Hamas and against Israel’s war in Gaza. Those incidents had been concentrated on the Bab al-Mandab Strait, to the southwest of the Arabian Peninsula.

Thursday’s incident is located closer to the Strait of Hormuz, between Oman and Iran.

On Wednesday, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution demanding that the Iran-aligned Houthis end attacks on ships in the Red Sea and free the Japanese-operated Galaxy Leader that was seized last year.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies