Saturday 17 August 2019

Iran ‘seizes two British tankers in Gulf’

'Hostile action' as Revolutionary Guards 'hijack ships in international waters'

Gulf clash: Iranian Revolutionary Guards are believed to have forced two tankers into port. Photo: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
Gulf clash: Iranian Revolutionary Guards are believed to have forced two tankers into port. Photo: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

Josie Ensor

Two British oil tankers were believed to have been seized by Iran's Revolutionary Guards last night in a major escalation of tensions in the Gulf.

The British-flagged Stena Impero had been en route to Saudi Arabia, but abruptly changed course and began sailing towards the Iranian island of Qeshm, data relayed by maritime tracking services showed.

The ship "went dark", meaning its identification system was turned off, at 4.29pm and nothing has been heard from her or her 23 crew since.

A second ship, the British-operated, Liberian-flagged Mesdar, turned sharply north towards Iran's coast, about 40 minutes after the course shift by Stena Impero.

The Mesdar's operator said the ship was boarded by armed guards but the crew were left "safe and well" and allowed to continue their voyage.

A Cobra emergency committee meeting was held last night between officials from the UK Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence and other government departments to determine the country's response.

Northern Marine, a Clyde-based subsidiary of the Stena Impero's Swedish owner Stena AB, said a "hostile action" had preceded the vessel's change of course.

The company issued a statement saying it had been "approached by unidentified small craft and a helicopter during transit of the Strait of Hormuz while the vessel was in international waters".

Iran's Revolutionary Guards said in a statement they stopped the Stena Impero at the request of the maritime authority in the Iranian province of Hormozgan on suspicion it had "violated international maritime law", but did not elaborate.

There was no immediate word from the Guards about the Mesdar or from its operator on what had prompted the change in direction.

The head of Iran's port authority was quoted by Guards-affiliated Tasnim news agency as saying: "We received reports of the British oil tanker, Stena Impero, causing problems, and therefore asked the military to guide the tanker towards Bandar Abbas harbour."

The US said it was aware of the reports. Garrett Marquis, the National Security Council spokesman, said it would "continue to work with our allies and partners to defend our security and interests against Iran's malign behaviour".

Tracking data showed the Stena Impero was in the same area a United Arab Emirates-based vessel was detained on Sunday and where a British vessel, the British Heritage, was blocked by Iranian forces this month.

A Whitehall source said: "It does look like it has been hijacked. Ships don't follow that pattern. It turned right and straight into Iranian waters. It is really concerning that this has happened.

"It looks on the face of it as though the Iranian Revolutionary Guard have boarded and taken a UK-flagged ship. It appears to be linked to events around the Grace 1 tanker."

British authorities seized the Iranian Grace 1 supertanker off the coast of Gibraltar on July 4, on suspicion it was carrying crude to Syria in violation of EU sanctions.

Its fate has been at the centre of escalating tensions between the UK and Iran and was seen as a pawn in the standoff between the Islamic Republic and the West.

Jeremy Hunt, the UK Foreign Secretary, had hinted the ship would be released if Iran promised its cargo would not go to the Syrian regime.

He said talks with Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif had been productive.

However, a court in Gibraltar yesterday extended for 30 days the detention of the vessel, which was carrying two million barrels of oil.

Oil prices rose last night after the tankers were seized.

(© Daily Telegraph, London)

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