The U.S. Navy answered a distress call from a merchant tanker that had been attacked off Oman. The ship was most likely hit by a drone strike, the U.S. military said. Two of its crew members died in the attack.

The target of the attack was Mercer Street, a Liberian-flagged, Japanese-owned, and Israeli-managed vessel. It was escorted by the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) said in a statement. The U.S. government later said that an appropriate response was being planned.

EOD Experts Dispatched Onboard

The U.S. Navy responded to the distress call and “upon arrival, U.S. forces determined through clear visual evidence that an attack had occurred,” the Navy said.

“U.S. Navy explosives experts are aboard to ensure there is no additional danger to the crew, and are prepared to support an investigation into the attack. Initial indications clearly point to a UAV-style [(drone)] attack,” CENTCOM’s statement specified.

Zodiac Maritime, a London-based maritime company, which manages the Mercer Street, is owned by Israeli businessman Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group.

A 2016 picture of the oil tanker Mercer Street which was attacked by drones off the coast of Oman. (AP)

According to the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO), which provides maritime security information, the tanker was attacked in the Indian Ocean about 152 nautical miles northeast of Duqm, Oman, and 21 nautical miles off the coast of Oman. 

The Mercer Street was headed for Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates, according to Refinitiv ship tracking. It had departed from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.

The dead were one Briton and one Romanian according to the Associated Press. 

Explosive Ordnance Technicians (EOD) were dispatched to the Mercer Street from the USS Ronald Reagan to collect evidence to aid in the investigation and assess for any additional threats to the vessel. 

The Mercer Street was sailing under its own power but was being escorted by both the USS Ronald Reagan and the guided-missile destroyer USS Mitscher (DDG-35), before docking safely in Fujairah, according to a statement by the U.S. 5th Fleet. The Japan-based Reagan Carrier Strike Group has been operating in these waters since late June, providing air support for the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

‘Iran Is Not Just an Israeli Problem’ Israel’s Foreign Minister Says

An MH-60 Seahawk helicopter prepares to take off from the USS Ronald Reagan to help the stricken vessel Mercer Street. (U.S. Navy)

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid who blamed Iran for the drone attack. In recent months, the Israelis and Iranians have been blaming each other for attacks on merchant vessels in the Gulf. Iran has accused Israel of attacking ships carrying oil to Syria. This was the first attack that resulted in fatalities.

“There is no justification for this attack, which follows a pattern of attacks and other belligerent behavior,” Blinken said in a statement on Sunday. “We are working with our partners to consider our next steps and consulting with governments inside the region and beyond on an appropriate response, which will be forthcoming.”

“We are working together against Iranian terrorism, which poses a threat to all of us, by formulating a real and effective international response,” Lapid said.

“[Iran] repeatedly errs in understanding our commitment to protecting ourselves and our interests,” he added. 

“Iran is not just an Israeli problem, but an exporter of terrorism, destruction, and instability that are hurting us all,” Lapid continued.

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Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Iran that was “unequivocally” responsible for the drone attack on the vessel.

“We expect the international community to clarify to the Iranian regime that it made a terrible mistake,” Bennett said. “We have our ways of getting the message to Iran.”

Iran Denies Any Connection to the Attack

Iran denied that any involvement with the attack. An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman rejected the accusations in a statement made during a press conference in Tehran on Sunday, saying it was not the first time such baseless allegations had been leveled against the Islamic Republic.

Nevertheless, earlier the Al-Alam agency, an Iranian-state-run news service, had said the attack was “in response to” a recent Israeli attack on an airport in Syria’s Qusayr region, without specifying who had attacked the ship. 

Iran has armed several proxy groups with rockets, missiles, and suicide drones. These groups are used to do Tehran’s bidding while providing it with a degree of deniability.