U.S. official says "highly likely" Iran behind new tanker attacks in Gulf of Oman

/ CBS/AP

Navy assisting after apparent tanker attack

Dubai, United Arab Emirates — Two tankers were attacked Thursday near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, leaving one ablaze and adrift as sailors were evacuated from both. It was the second time in a month that tankers have been seriously damaged in the region, and again U.S. officials were quick to point the finger of blame at Iran.

A U.S. defense official told CBS News senior national security correspondent David Martin it was "highly likely Iran caused these attacks" on Thursday. The official dismissed an Iranian claim to have rescued the crews of both vessels in the Gulf of Oman as "patently false." He said the USS Bainbridge picked up 21 crew members.

Iran claimed it dispatched search teams that rescued 44 sailors from the two vessels.

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The official told Martin he had seen reports that members of one of the tanker crews believed they were hit by a torpedo or a mine, but that he couldn't confirm those reports.

A U.S. official told Martin that American authorities expected to recover sufficient debris from the attacks to be able to trace them back to their source. The official said any retaliation from the U.S. would depend on the evidence found linking the attcks to Iran, and on the attitudes of other Gulf countries. After four tankers were attacked last month Saudi Arabia had no appetite for retaliation. That has changed.

The Lincoln was making a port call in Oman. It has gotten underway. Don't know if it was scheduled to get underway or did so in response to attacks.

U.S. officials pushing back against Iranian claims to have rescued crew members. According to U.S. officials, the crewmen Iran "rescued" were given no choice about boarding an Iranian vessel. At last report, they were still in Iranian hands, so fine line between rescued and detained.

"Suspicious timing"

The attacks come amid heightened tension between Washington and Tehran, and the timing is senstitive; it transpired just as the Japanese leader was visiting Iran to try and rekindle diplomacy to ease the standoff. Japan's Trade Ministry said the two vessels struck on Thursday were carrying "Japan-related cargo."

Oil tanker Front Altair on fire in Gulf of Oman on June 13, 2019 Iran's IRIB news agency

Iran's foreign minister described the attacks as beyond suspicious, given the timing with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meeing in Tehran with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

"Suspicious doesn't begin to describe what likely transpired this morning," Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in a tweet. He didn't elaborate.

On Wednesday, after talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Abe had warned that an "accidental conflict" could be sparked amid the heightened U.S.-Iran tensions, which he said must be avoided. His message came just hours after Yemen's Iranian-backed Houthi rebels attacked a Saudi airport, striking the arrivals hall before dawn and wounding 26 people Wednesday.

Tensions have escalated in the Mideast as Iran appears poised to break the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, an accord the Trump administration first unilaterally backed out of last year.

Khamenei, meanwhile, reiterated his regime's long-standing insistence that it does not seek to obtain nuclear weapons, but he added that "America could not do anything" to stop Iran if it did.

The latest incidents come after the U.S. alleged that Iran used mines to attack four oil tankers off the nearby Emirati port of Fujairah last month. Iran has denied involvement, but it comes as Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen also have launched missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia.

Benchmark Brent crude spiked at one point by as much 4% in trading after the reported attack to over $62 a barrel, highlighting how crucial the Strait of Hormuz is to global energy supplies. A third of all oil traded by sea passes through the strait, which is the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf.

The attacks

Cmdr. Joshua Frey, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, said American ships were assisting the two vessels, which he described as being hit in a "reported attack." He did not say how the ships were attacked or who was suspected of being behind the assault.

gulf-of-oman.jpg
Gulf of Oman Google Maps

The Norwegian shipping firm Frontline confirmed Thursday that one of its tankers, the Front Altair, was in flames after an incident in the Gulf of Oman, according to Reuters. It cited the Norwegian newspaper VG, which quoted a company spokesman. The spokesman said all 23 crew members were taken onto a nearby vessel.

Dryad Global, a maritime intelligence firm, said the Front Altair was "on fire and adrift."

Reuters also quoted a senior official of Taiwanese state oil refiner CPC Corp as saying the Front Altair, a tanker chartered by CPC to carry fuel from the Middle East, was apparently hit by a torpedo.

Front Altair had been loaded at a port in the Gulf with naptha, a petroleum product, and was on its way to the Far East.

Separately, a spokesman for BSM Ship Management told Reuters one of the vessels it manages, the Kokuka Courageous, was damaged in "a security incident" in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday. He said all 21 crew members abandoned ship and were quickly rescued, adding that the incident damaged the ship's starboard hull.

"The Kokuka Courageous remains in the area and is not in any danger of sinking. The cargo of methanol is intact," Reuters quoted the spokesman as saying.

Reuters reported that a shipping broker said there was an explosion "suspected from an outside attack" on the Kokuka Courageous – and it may have involved a magnetic mine. Japanese shipping firm Kokuka Sangyo, the vessel's owner, said it was struck twice in three hours, Reuters added.

The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, a maritime safety group run by the British navy, first put out the alert early Thursday, giving coordinates for the incident some 25 miles off the Iranian coastline.

First published on June 13, 2019 / 5:01 AM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

front-altair-on-fire-in-gulf-of-oman-061319.jpg gulf-of-oman.jpg

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