‘Flying Object’ Struck Tanker in Gulf of Oman, Operator Says, Not a Mine

Yutaka Katada, the president of the Japanese shipping company Kokuka Sangyo, in Tokyo on Friday with a photograph of the Kokuka Courageous, one of two ships attacked in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday.  Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

By Ben Dooley

TOKYO — One of the tankers that were attacked in the Gulf of Oman was struck by a flying object, the ship’s Japanese operator said on Friday, expressing doubt that a mine had been attached to its hull.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday that American intelligence agencies had concluded that Tehran was behind the disabling of two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, a vital conduit for much of the world’s oil. Iranian officials denied any involvement in the events, which have escalated tensions in the region.

[Read: U.S. Says Video Shows Iran Was Involved]

In an interview broadcast on Friday by “Fox & Friends,” President Trump directly accused Tehran, saying, “Iran did do it.”

“You saw the boat,” he said. “It has Iran written all over it.” Mr. Trump added: “They didn’t want the evidence left behind. They don’t know that we have things that we can detect in the dark that work very well. We have that. It was them that did it.”

American officials released video on Thursday that they said showed an Iranian boat crew, hours after the attack, removing a limpet mine attached to the hull of the damaged Kokuka Courageous, a tanker operated by the Japanese company Kokuka Sangyo.

But Yutaka Katada, the company’s president, citing accounts from the ship’s crew, said Friday: “I do not think there was a time bomb or an object attached to the side of the ship.”

The Paths of the Oil Tankers

Two oil tankers, the Kokuka Courageous and the Front Altair, were attacked in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday.

Mr. Pompeo did not say that mines had caused the two holes in the tanker’s hull that were visible in photographs released by the American military. Senior American officials have said that mines were used in attacks last month on four ships in the same area, which the United States has also accused Iran of carrying out.

“Our crew said that the ship was attacked by a flying object,” Mr. Katada said of the incident on Thursday.

He said that the holes in Kokuka Courageous were well above its waterline. “There is zero possibility that they were torpedoes,” he added.

Mr. Trump also addressed the possibility that Iran may somehow close the Strait of Hormuz, the gateway for a third of all crude oil by tanker.

[Read: How Tanker Attacks in the Strait of Hormuz Could Affect Oil Prices]

“It’s not going to be closed for long and they know it,” he said. “They’ve been told in strong terms. We want to get them back to the table if they want to go back. I’m ready when they are. I’m in no rush.”

On Friday, meanwhile, as other nations like China called for an easing of tensions in the region Yemen’s Houthi faction launched its second attack in days against an airport in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis lead a coalition that is fighting the Houthis, who are backed by Iran, in Yemen’s civil war.

Video released by U.S. Central Command shows a patrol boat pulling up to the Kokuka Courageous, one of two ships attacked in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday. Personnel removed what American analysts believe was a limpet mine from the ship. A military spokesman said the patrol boat was an Islamic Revolutionary Guard vessel.  U.S. Dept. of Defense

A Houthi television channel said the group had launched a drone attack on Abha International Airport, while the Saudi military said it had intercepted five Houthi drones and the airport was operating normally.

The Saudis said 26 people were injured in a Houthi strike on the same airport on Wednesday. The Houthis said that attack was carried out using a cruise missile.

The attacks in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday occurred as the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, was meeting top officials in Iran, attempting to bridge the divide between Washington and Tehran.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, wrote Friday on Twitter that American officials “immediately jumped to make allegations against Iran” without evidence, showing that the United States and its allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, were trying to “sabotage diplomacy.”

On Friday, the chief cabinet secretary of the Japanese government, Yoshihide Suga, declined to state a position on what had happened to the tankers.

“It is true that we are exchanging information in close communication with the U.S., but we are still in the process of gathering information, so I’ll refrain from making any prejudgments,” he said at a regular news briefing.

The semiofficial Iranian Students News Agency released video that appears to show an oil tanker on fire in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday. Recent attacks have escalated tensions in the region.
Iranian Students’ News Agency, via Associated Press

Without assigning blame, France’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Thursday: “We call upon all of the involved stakeholders, with whom we are in permanent contact, to exercise restraint and to de-escalate. We also reiterate our commitment to the freedom of navigation, which must absolutely be preserved.”

But Britain is giving the American explanation the benefit of the doubt, said Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who is seeking to become leader of the Conservative Party.

“This is deeply worrying and comes at a time of already huge tension,” Mr. Hunt said in a statement on Friday. “I have been in contact with Pompeo and, while we will be making our own assessment soberly and carefully, our starting point is obviously to believe our U.S. allies.”

Anwar Gargash, the minister of state for foreign affairs in the United Arab Emirates, wrote on Twitter Thursday that the attack was “a worrying development and a dangerous escalation that calls for the international community to move towards ensuring regional security and stability.”

A Dutch company, Boskalis, said it would salvage the two tankers near the Strait of Hormuz. Royal Boskalis Westminster said in a statement on Friday that the insurers of the tankers, the Front Altair and the Kokuka Courageous, had appointed its subsidiary SMIT Salvage to salvage both vessels and their cargoes.

Boskalis said the situation of the Front Altair, which was carrying a petroleum product, was “still worrisome.” It added that the fire on board has been extinguished.

Later on Friday, Reuters reported that the Kokuka Courageous, was being towed and heading toward the United Arab Emirates’ port of Khor Fakkan, according to its operator, Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement.

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