British navy group: Hijackers have left vessel off UAE coast

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The oil tanker Mercer Street, which came under attack last week off Oman, is seen moored off Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021. The British navy warned of a “potential hijack” of another ship off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in the Gulf of Oman on Tuesday, though the circumstances remain unclear. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

FUJAIRAH, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The hijackers who seized a vessel off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in the Gulf of Oman left the targeted ship on Wednesday, the British navy reported, without elaborating.

The British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations reported that the incident, which it had described as a “potential hijack” the night before, was now “complete.” It did not provide further details.

“The vessel is safe,” the group said, without identifying the ship. Shipping authority Lloyd’s List and maritime intelligence firm Dryad Global both named the hijacked 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.

Satellite-tracking data for the Asphalt Princess had showed it gradually heading toward Iranian waters off the port of Jask early Wednesday, according to MarineTraffic.com. Later, however, it stopped and changed course toward Oman, just before the British navy group announced the intruders had left.

Two Oman Royal Air Force aircraft, identified as an Airbus C-295MPA and Lockheed C-130H Hercules, flew over the waters off Fujairah on Wednesday after the incident, according to data from FlightRadar24.com.

It was not immediately clear who was responsible for the attempted ship hijack, which unfolded amid heightened tensions between Iran and the West over Tehran’s tattered 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. Over the past few years, commercial shipping in vital Persian Gulf waterways has increasingly been caught in the crosshairs.

Most recently, the U.S., the U.K. and Israel have blamed Iran for a drone attack on an oil tanker linked to an Israeli billionaire off the coast of Oman that killed two people. The raid marked the first known fatal assault in the shadow war targeting vessels in Mideast waters. Iran has denied involvement.

Apparently responding to Tuesday’s ship seizure, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh described the recent maritime attacks in the Persian Gulf as “completely suspicious.” He denied that Iran played any role.

The U.S. military’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet and the British Defense Ministry did not return calls for comment about the reported hijack. The Emirati government did not immediately acknowledge the incident.

Late on Tuesday, as the reported hijack was underway, six oil tankers off the coast of Fujairah announced around the same time via their Automatic Identification System trackers that they were “not under command,” according to MarineTraffic.com. That typically means a vessel has lost power and can no longer steer.

The Gulf of Oman is near the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a fifth of all oil passes. Fujairah, on the UAE’s eastern coast, is a main port in the region for ships to take on new oil cargo, pick up supplies or trade out crew.

For the past two years, after then-President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from Iran’s nuclear deal and imposed crushing sanctions on the country, the waters off Fujairah have seen a series of explosions and hijackings. The U.S. Navy blamed Iran for a series of limpet mine attacks on vessels that damaged tankers.

In the summer of 2019, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard troops detained a British-flagged tanker, the Stena Impero, near the Strait of Hormuz — a raid that came after Britain seized an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar on suspicion the ship had been headed to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions.

Last year, an oil tanker sought by the U.S. for allegedly circumventing sanctions on Iran was hijacked off the Emirati coast and later ended up in Iran, though Tehran never acknowledged the incident.

And in January, armed Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops stormed a South Korean tanker and forced the ship to change course and travel to Iran. While Iran claimed it detained the ship over pollution concerns, it appeared to link the seizure to negotiations over billions of dollars in Iranian assets frozen in South Korean banks.

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DeBre reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates

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