Tuesday 23 July 2019

US commander says mines in attack on oil tankers similar to those used by Iran

Tensions are rising in the region although the commander did not directly blame Tehran for the incidents.

An Iranian navy boat sprays water to extinguish a fire on an oil tanker in the sea of Oman (Tasnim News Agency/AP)
An Iranian navy boat sprays water to extinguish a fire on an oil tanker in the sea of Oman (Tasnim News Agency/AP)

By Jon Gambrell, Associated Press

The limpet mines used to attack a Japanese-owned oil tanker near the Strait of Hormuz last week bore “a striking resemblance” to similar mines displayed by Iran, a US Navy explosives expert has said.

He stopped short of directly blaming Tehran for the assault.

Iran has denied being involved in the attack last Thursday that hit the Japanese tanker Kokuka Courageous and also the Norwegian-owned Front Altair.

The comments by Commander Sean Kido came as the Navy showed reporters pieces of debris and a magnet they say Iran’s Revolutionary Guard left behind when they spirited away an unexploded limpet mine after the June 13 attack in the Gulf of Oman.

Iran has also not acknowledged taking the mine.

ipanews_af982aa2-9321-4d6c-a6ae-596328318d54_embedded243618527
Journalists take pictures of a magnet the US Navy says came from a limpet mine that did not explode on a Japanese-owned oil tanker at a 5th Fleet base, during a trip organised by the US Navy for journalists (Kamran Jebreili/AP)

Cmmdr Kido also stressed that the damage done to the Kokuka Courageous was “not consistent with an external flying object hitting the ship”, despite the ship’s owner blaming “flying objects” for the damage in the attack.

Meanwhile, a rocket hit an oil-drilling site in Iraq’s southern Basra province early on Wednesday, striking inside a compound housing energy giant Exxon Mobil and other foreign oil companies and wounding three local workers, one seriously, Iraqi officials said.

The attack on the oil tankers comes amid heightened tensions between the US and Iran that take root in President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers a year ago.

Iran recently has quadrupled its production of low-enriched uranium and threatened to boost its enrichment closer to weapons-grade levels, trying to pressure Europe for new terms to the deal.

In recent weeks, the US has sped an aircraft carrier to the Mideast and deployed additional troops to the tens of thousands already here.

Mysterious attacks also have targeted oil tankers as Iranian-allied Houthi rebels launch bomb-laden drones into Saudi Arabia.

ipanews_af982aa2-9321-4d6c-a6ae-596328318d54_embedded243618407
Commander Sean Kido of the US Navy’s 5th Fleet (Kamran Jebreili/AP)

All this has raised fears that a miscalculation or further rise in tensions could push the US and Iran into an open conflict, some 40 years after Tehran’s Islamic Revolution.

The US Navy briefed foreign journalists at a 5th Fleet base near Fujairah, an Emirati port city some 130 miles northeast of the capital, Abu Dhabi.

There, they showed journalists debris recovered from the Kokuka Courageous, which they described as including aluminium and composite metals.

They also showed a magnet they described as being left behind by the Revolutionary Guard, one of six apparently sticking the unexploded limpet mine to the ship’s hull.

Sailors said it took two of them and a crowbar to pry it off the ship.

Those pieces put together have US sailors suspecting the limpet mine came from Iran.

They showed a picture previously shared among weapons experts of a limpet mine on display in Iran, which they said resembled the one they suspected was used on the ship. That picture showed a conical mine, some 90lb in weight, on display with a sign next to it identifying it as being produced by a research company affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard.

“The limpet mine that was used does bear a striking resemblance to that which has been publicly displayed in Iranian military parades,” Cmmdr Kido said.

“There are distinguishing features.”

The damage we observed is consistent with a limpet mine attack, it is not consistent with an external flying object hitting the ship Commander Sean Kido

Cmmdr Kido declined to elaborate.

Iran’s mission to the UN did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The mines were placed above the water line. One exploded, punching through the double-hulled ship and sparking a brief fire. The placement of the mines on the vessel makes it “not appear that the intention was to sink the vessel,” Mr Kido said.

“The damage we observed is consistent with a limpet mine attack, it is not consistent with an external flying object hitting the ship,” Cmmdr Kido said.

Authorities also recovered a hand print and fingerprints, he said.

“We recovered biometric information … which can be used to build a criminal case to hold the individuals responsible accountable.”

He did not elaborate.

ipanews_af982aa2-9321-4d6c-a6ae-596328318d54_embedded243521477
A false-colour image from the European Commission’s Sentinel-2 satellite that was processed by Sinergise’s Sentinel Hub website shows the Norwegian-owned MT Front Altair ablaze (AP)

The second vessel involved in the attack, the Norwegian-owned Front Altair, caught fire and sent black smoke up into the air that was visible from space by satellites.

Cmmdr Kido did not explain why the US had no immediate evidence from that vessel.

Both are now anchored off the eastern coast of the United Arab Emirates.

He also declined to discuss an earlier, May 12 attack on four oil tankers off the coast of Fujairah near the US base, which America similarly blames on an Iranian limpet mine attack.

Analysts also believe those attacks came from limpet mines.

PA Media

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editors Choice

Also in World News