Suspected tanker hijacking off UAE coast is over, says British military

By Peter Beaumont

A group of armed men who boarded a tanker off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in the Gulf of Oman have left the targeted ship, the British navy has said without elaborating.

The notice on Wednesday came after the British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) warned of a “potential hijack” under unclear circumstances underway the night before.

The UKMTO reported that the “incident [is] complete”. It did not provide further details.

It was not immediately clear who was responsible for the attempted ship hijack, or what ship was targeted. Shipping authority Lloyd’s List and maritime intelligence firm Dryad Global had both identified the seized vessel as Panama-flagged asphalt tanker Asphalt Princess.

The vessel’s owner, listed as Emirati free zone-based Glory International, could not immediately be reached for comment.

The event unfolded amid heightened tensions between Iran and the west over Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal with world powers and as commercial shipping in the region has found itself caught in the crosshairs. Most recently, the US, UK and Israel have blamed Iran for a drone attack on an oil tanker off the coast of Oman that killed two people. Iran has denied involvement.

A number of maritime security sources had suggested that Iranian-backed forces were suspected in an incident that remains clouded in uncertainty.

In a statement on Tuesday, the UK Foreign Office said it was “urgently investigating an incident on a vessel off the UAE coast”. A spokesperson for the US state department said it was “too early to offer a judgment” on the incident.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards denied that the country’s forces or allies were involved, saying the incident was a pretext for “hostile action” against Tehran, Iranian state television said on its website.

“According to information from security sources, Iran’s armed forces and all branches of the Islamic Resistance in the Middle East have nothing to do with the incident in the Gulf of Oman,” the Guards said in a statement carried by the website.

The statement said the incident was an attempt by western countries and Israel “to prepare the public opinion of the international community for hostile action against the honourable nation of Iran”.

Iran’s foreign ministry said reports of security incidents involving several ships near the UAE coast on Tuesday were “suspicious” and warned against any effort to create a “false atmosphere” against Tehran.

“The reports on the occurrence of successive security incidents for ships in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman is completely suspicious,” a ministry website quoted spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh as saying, adding: “Iran’s naval forces are ready for help and rescue in the region.”

First intimations of an incident emerged on Tuesday afternoon when a warning notice was issued by the British military’s UKMTO, which notified ships that “an incident is currently under way” – later upgraded to a “potential hijacking”.

An Oman Royal Air Force Airbus C-295MPA, a maritime patrol aircraft, was flying over the area, according to data from Flightradar24.com.

The initial warning emerged amid contradictory claims in different local media that up to four ships had reported issues. Four oil tankers announced around the same time via their automatic identification system trackers that they were “not under command”, according to MarineTraffic.com.

It was not clear, however, of the significance of those alerts or even if they were related, with one of the ships later moving again.

The US military’s Middle East-based Fifth Fleet and the British defence ministry did not immediately return calls for comment. The Emirati government did not immediately acknowledge the incident.