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Two oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz were damaged in suspected attacks on Thursday, an assault that left one ablaze and adrift as sailors were evacuated from both vessels and the US Navy rushed to assist. (June 13)
AP

An apparent attack Thursday on two oil tankers off the Iranian coast left one ship ablaze, forced crews of both to abandon ship and threatened to further strain already tense US-Iran relations.

No nation or group claimed responsibility for the attack, the second on oil tankers in the region in a month.

“We are aware of the reported attack on shipping vessels in the Gulf of Oman,” the Navy’s 5th Fleet said in a brief statement. “U.S. Naval Forces in the region received two separate distress calls.”

The guided-missile destroyer USS Bainbridge responded, aiding in the rescue operation, the Navy said. Iran’s Islamic Republic News Agency said Iranian search and rescue teams picked up the 21 sailors aboard the Kokuka Courageous and 23 from the Front Altair and evacuated them to the nearby Iranian port of Jask.

Iran government spokesman Ali Rabiei expressed “concern and sorrow” over the incident and warned nations not to duped by others that benefit from instability in the region.



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BSM Ship Management, owner of the Kokuka Courageous, said it had launched a “full-scale emergency response following a security incident” aboard the Panamanian-flagged ship. 

One crew member was slightly injured, and the incident resulted in damage to the ship’s hull, the company said. The Courageous, stranded 16 miles off the coast of Iran and 80 off of the United Arab Emirates, was in no danger of sinking, BSM added.

The Marshal Islands-flagged Front Altair was ablaze, owner Frontline shipping of Norway said. Taiwan’s state oil refiner CBC Corp had charted the ship, which carried 75,000 tons of the petrochemical naphtha, when it was “suspected of being hit by a torpedo,” Wu I-Fang, CPC’s petrochemical business division CEO, told Reuters news agency.

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Japan’s Trade Ministry said at least one of the vessels had “Japan-related cargo.” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was wrapping up a high-stakes visit in Tehran that sought to ease tensions between Iran and the United States. 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.

Jamal Abdi, president of the Washington-based National Iranian American Council, urged Iran, the US and other actors to show restraint while the investigation unfolds.

“The fact that the sabotage occurred amid Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s state visit to Iran underscores that the likely motive of the attackers is to prevent any easing of tensions and block off exit ramps to war,” Abdi said.

James Piazza, a Penn State political science professor specializing in the Islamic world, agreed that it was too soon to assign blame for the attack. He told USA TODAY that while hard-line elements in Iran could be involved, Iran-allied rebels in Yemen are also among candidates.

“I think what the alleged attacks underscore is the vulnerability of petroleum resources in the Gulf and, by extension, global economic stability,” Piazza said.

Oil prices reacted immediately — benchmark Brent crude spiked more than $3 as word of the possible attack spread, to over $62 a barrel. 

Last year President Donald Trump withdrew from an accord between Iran and world powers aimed at limiting Tehran’s nuclear capabilities. The White House has repeatedly claimed in recent weeks that Iran poses an increased threat to American forces and facilities in the Middle East. 

Less than six weeks ago Trump dispatched the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force to the region.

The apparent attack Thursday drew parallels to a similar attack last month. Saudi Arabia said in May that four oil tankers were sabotaged off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in attacks that caused “significant damage” to the vessels. One of the ships was en route to pick up Saudi oil to take to the United States.

That drew a pointed response from President Trump, aimed at Iran.

“It’s going to be a bad problem for Iran if something happens, I can tell you that,” Trump said after that attack. “They’re not going to be happy.” 

An investigation blamed explosive sea mines, and Saudi Arabia and the United States blamed Iran for those attacks. Iran denied involvement, although Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen also have launched missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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