US Iran

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talked to the media on Thursday about the suspected attacks on two oil tankers near the Persian Gulf. Pompeo blamed Iran though he provided no evidence of its role. — AP Photo/Alex Brandon

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The U.S. blamed Iran for suspected attacks on two oil tankers Thursday near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, denouncing what it called a campaign of “escalating tensions” in a region crucial to global energy supplies.

The U.S. Navy rushed to assist the stricken vessels in the Gulf of Oman off the coast of Iran, including one that was set ablaze. The ships’ operators offered no immediate explanation on who or what caused the damage against the Norwegian-owned MT Front Altair and the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous.

The Front Altair had been bound for Taiwan and the Kokuka Courageous for Singapore, according to the data firm Refinitiv. Each was loaded with petroleum products, and the Front Altair burned for hours after the incident.

The U.S. assessment of Iran’s involvement was based in part on intelligence as well as the expertise needed for the operation. It was also based on recent incidents in the region that the U.S. also blamed on Iran, including the use of limpet mines — designed to be attached magnetically to a ship’s hull — to attack four oil tankers off the nearby Emirati port of Fujairah and the bombing of an oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia by Iranian-backed fighters in May, said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Pompeo provided no evidence, gave no specifics about any plans and took no questions.

At the United Nations, the United States asked for closed Security Council consultations on the tanker incidents later Thursday.

Iran denied being involved in the attacks last month and its foreign minister called the timing of Thursday’s incidents suspicious, given that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was meeting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran.

Pompeo noted that Abe had asked Iran to enter into talks with the U.S. but Tehran “rejected” the overture.

Iran previously used mines against oil tankers in 1987 and 1988 in the “Tanker War,” which saw the U.S. Navy escort ships through the region. Regardless of who is responsible, the price of a barrel of benchmark Brent crude spiked as much as 4% immediately after the attack, showing how critical the region remains to the global economy.

The suspected attacks occurred at dawn Thursday about 25 miles off the southern coast of Iran. The Front Altair, loaded with the flammable hydrocarbon mixture naphtha from the United Arab Emirates, radioed for help as it caught fire. A short time later, the Kokuka Courageous, loaded with methanol from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, also called for help.

The U.S. Navy sent a destroyer, the USS Bainbridge, to assist, said Cmdr. Joshua Frey, a 5th Fleet spokesman. He described the ships as being hit in a “reported attack,” without elaborating.

In Washington, senior U.S. officials said the U.S. had photographed an unexploded mine on the side of one of the tankers. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter, said the U.S. will re-evaluate its presence in the region and is considering a plan to provide military escorts for merchant ships.

Frontline, the firm that operates the Front Altair, told The Associated Press that an explosion was the cause of the fire. Its crew of 23 — from Russia, the Philippines and Georgia — was safely evacuated to the nearby Hyundai Dubai vessel, it said.

BSM Ship Management said the Kokuka Courageous sustained hull damage and its 21 Filipino sailors had been evacuated, with one suffering minor injuries. All 21 were placed aboard the Bainbridge, according to Lt. Col. Earl Brown, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command. — (AP)

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