Two Tanker Ships Damaged In Suspected Attacks In The Gulf Of Oman (Updated)

The incidents come as the region is extremely on edge as tensions between the U.S., its Gulf State allies, and Iran continue to rise. 

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The situation remains extremely fluid at this time and details are bound to morph in the coming hours, but it seems clear that some sort of maritime incident has occurred in the Sea Of Oman. Reports indicate that at least one tanker is on fire and the UK Maritime Trade Operations group put out a safety bulletin warning of an incident occurring in the Gulf Of Oman and urging extreme caution to mariners operating in the area. 

The Marshall Islands-flagged tanker Front Altair appears to be the ship on fire, while reports also state that the Panama-flagged tanker Kokuka Courageous has also been involved in some type of an incident. The ships are in an area to the southeast of the Strait Of Hormuz, the same general locale where America's Lincoln Carrier Strike Group has been operating in recent weeks. 

Whatever happened, it occurred at a time when the entire region is extremely tense following an influx of U.S. forces due to largely unspecified intelligence reports about Iran spinning up operations against U.S. interests in the Middle East. A number of tankers were struck by what appears to be limpet mines shortly after the U.S. said it was speeding the Lincoln Carrier Strike Group to the region in an act of deterrence. Nobody has claimed responsibilities for those attacks that resulted in less than catastrophic damage to the tankers, although the U.S. and its partners in the region have stated that they think it was the work of irregular Iranian proxy forces. 

UAE Government 

Images showing holes blown in tankers by what the U.S. and its gulf state partners claim to have been caused by Limpet Mines attached by divers operating from small boats nearby.

It's worth noting that Houthi rebels in Yemen—now one of Iran's most notorious proxies—used a cruise missile to strike a Saudi airport for the first time yesterday. It is just another reminder that more advanced weapons and tactics are proliferating to Iranian-backed actors in the region.

We will continue to update this post as more information comes available. 

UPDATE: 12:35pm PDT—

Bloomberg states that the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet has confirmed that two vessels were damaged in an unspecified incident in the Gulf Of Oman. 

The manager of tanker Kokuka Courageous, which was sailing from Saudi Arabia to Singapore with a cargo of methanol, said the vessel “has been damaged as a result of the suspected attack.”

“The hull has been breached above the water line on the starboard side,” Bernhard Schulte GmbH & Co KG said in a statement on its website. “All crew are reported safe and only one minor injury reported.”

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Another tanker, Front Altair, sent a distress signal to the U.A.E. port of Fujairah. It had loaded an oil shipment in Abu Dhabi, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. It is owned by Norway’s Frontline Ltd. and is registered in the Marshall Islands.

UPDATE: 12:48am PDT—

Here is what Reuters is reporting at this time:

One shipping broker said there had been an explosion “suspected from an outside attack” that may have involved a magnetic mine on the Kokuka.

“All crew safely abandoned the vessel and was picked up by Vessel Coastal Ace. Kokuka Courageous is adrift without any crew on board,” the source said.

Another source said the Front Altair reported a fire caused by a “surface attack” and that the crew had been picked up by nearby vessel Hyundai Dubai.

Also, just a reminder that there is a ton of ISR capability up in that region and not just belonging to the U.S. but also to the Gulf States as well. This will hopefully help in figuring out who exactly launched these attacks. On the other hand, magnetic mines and other explosive devices can be deployed in port or while a ship is at anchor and detonate long after they are initially placed. 

UPDATE: 1:23am PDT—

Some outlets are using the term 'torpedo attack.' Take this with a huge grain of salt. It is very early to know definitively the nature of these attacks and a torpedo would drastically narrow down the possible culprits and could even be a pretext for a direct conflict. So, with that being said, let's wait and see with this one.

Apparently, Front Altair was carrying naphtha and Kokuka Courageous was carrying methanol. 

Iran's state news outlets are saying 44 sailors were rescued by Iranian vessels and taken to the port city of Jask.

UPDATE: 5:00am PDT—

Here is video of one of the vessels shot from an Iranian helicopter. Not good:

Iranian state media has also posted these photos:

Here are some other photos of one of the ships alight:

There are major concerns as to what magnitude of environmental debacle will these ships cause if they go under and their contents are fully released. 

Also, Iran's Foreign Ministers says the incidents are "suspicious:"

Japanese President Abe is in Tehran where it was hoped he could broker some sort of dialogue or easing of tensions between the U.S. and Iran, but even as he is set to meet with the country's top leadership today, those prospects look increasingly dim.

The U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet has finally put out a formal statement. It reads:

We are aware of the reported attack on shipping vessels in the Gulf of Oman. U.S. Naval Forces in the region received two separate distress calls at 6:12 a.m. local (Bahrain) time and a second one at 7:00 a.m. The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Bainbridge (DDG 96) rendered assistance.

Meanwhile, oil is up around 3.5%.

UPDATE: 6:40am PDT—

Yutaka Katada, President of Kokuka Sangyo, which owns the Kokuka Courageous, told reporters that the ship had been attacked twice in the space of three hours. The ship was carrying 25,000 tons of methanol from Saudi Arabia bound for Singapore. The attacks caused a fire in the engine room and led to the complete evacuation of the ship's crew.

Reports of a possible torpedo attack, which remain unconfirmed, appear to come from a statement from Taiwanese refiner CPC Corp, which had chartered the Front Altair. That is the ship, which had been headed to Taiwan from the UAE carrying 75,000 tons of naphtha, is the one on fire. Shipping company Frontline has also denied reports that the Front Altair has sunk.

Japanese Trade Minister Hiroshige Seko had said his country was investigating reports that a ship carrying "Japan-related" cargo had been involved in the incident, but neither ship had cargo actually bound for Japan.

UPDATE: 7:30am PDT—

CBS News is reporting that an unnamed U.S. defense official told them that it is "highly likely Iran caused these attacks," but offered no evidence to support this assertion. The same source also said that it was "patently false" that Iran had rescued 44 crew members from both vessels.

Frontline said that there had been 23 individuals onboard the Front Altair and BSM Ship Management, which operates the Kokuka Courageous, said the ship's crew consisted of 21 individuals. CBS's source said that the USS Bainbridge had recovered the crew of the Kokuka Courageous, which, if true, would directly contradict Iranian claims to have recovered all 44 sailors from both ships and brought them ashore to Jask.

Frontline has also said that the Hyundai Dubai, a cargo ship sailing in the same area, had rendered immediate assistance to Front Altair, before transferring the crew to an Iranian naval vessel. However, the shipping company said that they were headed to Bandar Abbas, rather than Jask.

UPDATE: 11:00am PDT—

U.S. Central Command spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Earl Brown has now issued the following statement, confirming that the crew of the Kokuka Courageous are onboard the USS Bainbridge:

"U.S. Naval Forces in the region received two separate distress calls at 6:12 a.m. local time and a second one at 7:00 a.m.

"U.S. Naval Forces Central Command received the calls from the M/V Front Altair and M/V Kokuka Courageous, who were operating in international waters of the Gulf of Oman.

"USS Bainbridge (DDG 96) was operating in the vicinity and provided immediate assistance to the M/V Kokuka Courageous

"Twenty-one mariners from the M/V Kokuka Courageous, who abandoned ship, are currently aboard USS Bainbridge. A Navy P-8 is also providing support."

There are also now unconfirmed reports that the crew of the Bainbridge spotted an unexploded limpet mine on the side of the ship during the rescue operations. There have been a number of reports that limpet mines were likely responsible for the damage done to the four tankers off the coast of the UAE in May 2019.

UPDATE: 11:25am PDT—

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has now publicly blamed Iran for the attacks on the two tanker, but offered only limited details about how the U.S. government arrived at this determination.

UPDATE: 1:40pm PDT—

A commercial ship belonging to Acta Marine in the Netherlands was immediately responsible for rescuing the crew of the Kokuka Courageous, before transferring them the USS Bainbridge, according to the Dutch Broadcast Foundation. Dennis Bras, a spokesperson for Acta Marine, said that the crew of the ship had also seen a "suspicious object" on the other vessel's hull as it recovered the sailors, though there is still no confirmation that it was a mine or a remnant of any other type of weapon.

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Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com