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‘Hijack’ of ship off UAE over, says UK agency

The suspected hijacking of a ship in the Gulf of Oman has ended and the vessel is safe, a UK maritime security agency said Wednesday, days after a deadly attack on a tanker in the region.

“Boarders have left the vessel. Vessel is safe. Incident complete,” United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) tweeted, without elaborating.

The incident off the United Arab Emirates (UAE) came just days after an attack on a tanker that left two dead and which the United States and Israel blamed on Iran.

Earlier, Lloyd’s List reported that armed men had boarded the Panama-flagged tanker and ordered it to sail to Iran.

And on Tuesday, the UKTMO said the “potential hijack” of the ship took place 60 miles east of the emirate of Fujairah as it headed towards the Strait of Hormuz.

Maritime security analysts at Dryad Global and Aurora Intelligence named the ship as the Panama-flagged Asphalt Princess, an asphalt and bitumen tanker.

The ship headed towards Iran under the control of armed men with British and US naval operations monitoring the situation, Lloyd’s List said.

An Omani maritime security source Wednesday confirmed Muscat had received information on the Asphalt Princess being involved in “a hijacking incident in international waters in the Gulf of Oman”.

“The Royal Air Force of Oman is carrying out sorties near the area, while the Royal Navy of Oman deployed a number of ships from its fleet to help secure international waters in the region,” the source said, quoted in a defence ministry statement.

Richard Meade, editor of the shipping industry intelligence site Lloyds List, told The Times that “armed forces” had boarded the vessel and had been “directing it towards Iran”.

The incident at the opening of the Strait of Hormuz — one of the world’s busiest waterways — comes days after the deadly attack on an Israeli-linked tanker bound for the UAE.

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said Tuesday that “reported ‘incidents’ in the Persian Gulf and broader region appeared utterly suspicious”.

“Reaffirming our strong commitment to regional stability and maritime security, Iran stands ready to offer assistance in case of any maritime accidents,” Khatibzadeh wrote on Twitter.

– ‘Deeply concerning’ incident –

The United States stopped short of assigning blame for the latest episode but State Department spokesman Ned Price said there had been “a very disturbing pattern of belligerence from Iran”.

“When it comes to this specific incident, it’s too early for us to offer a judgement just yet,” Price told reporters.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States was in close touch with Britain over the “deeply concerning” incident.

While Iran has denied any involvement in last Thursday’s blast on the MT Mercer Street, the United States and Iran’s arch-enemy Israel both say an Iranian drone caused the explosion.

Two crew members, from Britain and Romania, died on the Liberian-flagged ship, which is managed by prominent Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has vowed a collective response against Iran over the incident, which he called a “direct threat” to freedom of navigation in the oil-rich waters.

US Navy forces who came to the aid of the crew in response to an emergency distress call saw evidence of the attack, according to the US military.

The tensions come as Iran on Tuesday inaugurated the Islamic republic’s eighth president, the ultraconservative cleric and prosecutor Ebrahim Raisi.

He succeeded Hassan Rouhani, considered a moderate, who sought to repair relations with the West and whose administration unsuccessfully sought to negotiate a revival of a nuclear accord with the United States.