Two oil tankers were hit in a suspected attack in the Gulf of Oman early on Thursday, causing oil prices to surge and raising the already heightened tensions in the Middle East.
The tankers were struck in the same area where the US accused Iran of using naval mines to sabotage four other oil ships in an attack last month.
One of the tankers is carrying “Japan-related” cargo, and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameneni is meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tehran.
As the news filtered from the Gulf, Iran’s Foreign Minister tweeted in English that, “suspicious doesn’t begin to describe what likely transpired this morning”.
One of the ships, the Norwegian-owned Front Altair, was “suspected of being hit by a torpedo”, according to Taiwan’s state-owned petrol company. The ship was on fire, its owners said.
The second tanker, Kokuka Courageous, was damaged in a “suspected attack” that breached the hull above the water line while on passage from Saudi Arabia to Singapore, according to Bernhard Schulte Ship management.
The company said the ship was safely afloat. Oil prices jumped by 4 per cent in response to reports of the attack.
The US Navy said it was helping to evacuate the two damaged tankers and the shipping companies said the crews of both ships were safe.
A US Navy spokesman said: “We are aware of the reported attack on shipping vessels in the Gulf of Oman. US Naval Forces in the region received two separate distress calls at 6:12 a.m. local (Bahrain) time and a second one at 7:00 a.m. U.S. Navy ships are in the area and are rendering assistance.”
The UK Maritime Trade Operations (UKTMO), a unit of the Royal Navy, said it was aware of an incident in the area but gave no further details. “UK and its partners are currently investigating,” UKTMO said.
The alleged attack happened outside the Strait of Hormuz, the strategic waterway between Iran and Oman through which around 20 per cent of all the world’s oil is transported.
Neither the shipping companies nor the US Navy made any immediate accusations but early suspicions will fall on Iran.
The US has accused accused Iran of sabotaging two oil tankers and two smaller ships near the Emirati port of Fujairah using naval mines on May 12. Iran denied responsibility for the attack.
The latest incident comes amid weeks of heightened tensions between the US and Iran.