Three maritime security sources are reporting that Iranian-backed forces are believed to be behind the hijack of an oil tanker in the Gulf off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.
The British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) warned ships that “an incident is currently underway” off the coast of Fujairah. It advised extreme caution around 60 nautical miles east of the U.A.E.’s Fujairah emirate.
Hours later, the authorities said the incident was a “potential hijack,” but didn’t have any details to add.
Lloyd’s List, a leading maritime shipping authority, and Dryad Global, a maritime intelligence company, both identified the vessel involved in the incident as Panama-flagged asphalt tanker Asphalt Princess. The vessel’s owner is listed as the Emirati free zone-based Glory International.
The British Navy first warned of a “potential hijack” of a ship off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in the Gulf of Oman earlier on Tuesday.
After the UKMTO posted its warning, the Times, a London newspaper, reported that “British sources believe Asphalt Princess has been hijacked. They are working on the assumption Iranian military or proxies have boarded the vessel.”
A War on the Region’s Shipping
Tensions have been high in the region since an Israeli-managed tanker, the Mercer Street, was attacked by drones of Iranian-backed forces off the Omani coast. Two crew members died in that attack. The Iranians denied any responsibility, but the Al-Alam agency, an Iranian-state-run news service said the attack was “in response to” a recent Israeli attack on an airport in Syria’s Qusayr region. The two sides have been trading attacks on shipping in the Gulf.
Iran’s senior armed forces spokesman, Abolfazl Shekarchi, dismissed reports of maritime incidents and hijacking in the Gulf area as “a kind of psychological warfare and setting the stage for new bouts of adventurism,” the Fars News Agency said.
Six oil tankers radioed around the same time via their Automatic Identification System trackers that they were “not under command,” according to MarineTraffic.com. That message usually means that the ship has lost power and is unable to maneuver due to exceptional circumstances.
The U.K. Foreign Ministry released a statement saying that “We are urgently investigating an incident on a vessel off the U.A.E. coast,” a spokesperson said.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said that it was “too early for us to offer a judgment just yet.” Given the “concerning reports,” the State Department is looking further into the incident. One unnamed U.S. official told the media that the U.S. Navy may reposition at least one vessel in the vicinity of the Asphalt Princess.
According to MarineTraffic.com, satellite-tracking data for the Asphalt Princess showed off the port of Jask early Wednesday and slowly heading toward Iranian waters.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh called the recent maritime attacks in the Persian Gulf “completely suspicious.” He denied that Iran was involved in the hijack.
“Iran’s naval forces are ready for help and rescue in the region,” Khatibzadeh added.
Another Iranian Hijack, Another Day
Hijacking incidents are nothing new to the area. In January, Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops forcefully boarded a South Korean tanker and forced the ship to change course and travel to Iran. Tehran insisted that it diverted the ship to stop it from polluting the waters of the Gulf. The incident occurred as Iran sought to increase its leverage over Seoul ahead of negotiations over billions of dollars in Iranian assets frozen in South Korean banks.
In the summer of 2019, Iran seized the British-flagged Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz as it was headed from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas to Dubai. The raid by Iranian troops came after authorities in Gibraltar had seized an Iranian supertanker carrying $130 million in crude oil that was heading for Syria, in violation of EU sanctions.