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Hijackers Abandon Effort to Commandeer Vessel in Gulf of Oman, British Navy Group Says

[Dubai] The UK’s Maritime Trade Operations (UK MTO) declared on Wednesday morning that a Panama-flagged tanker that armed men had hijacked the previous day off the coast of the United Arab Emirates was safe.

Experts called the incident a “show of force” from Iran.

As the UAE-owned Asphalt Princess made its way back to the Omani coast, the UK MTO announced via Twitter: “Boarders have left the vessel. Vessel is safe. Incident complete.”

The British Royal Navy created the naval reserve-manned UK MTO office in Dubai two decades ago to counter Somali pirates and “with the principal purpose of providing an information conduit between military which (includes/security forces) and the wider international maritime trade.”

Shipping intelligence firm Lloyd’s List confirmed late on Tuesday night that the Asphalt Princess had been hijacked and directed to Iran after UK MTO first raised the incident.

By Wednesday, Lloyd’s List Intelligence AIS tracking showed the tanker, used to transport bitumen and asphalt, headed toward Oman.

Though the news of the vessel’s safety came as a relief to many who feared its hijacking might trigger conflict in the region, the UK MTO still advised vessels to “exercise extreme caution” when exiting the Gulf of Oman area near the UAE’s northeast coast and the Emirate of Fujairah.

The incident in the world’s busiest oil transit route comes after a drone attack on the Mercer Street, an oil tanker managed by Israeli-owned Zodiac Maritime, which killed a Romanian crewmember and a British security guard last Thursday.

UK and US naval operations are monitoring the situation. Iran has denied involvement but the attacks have sent shockwaves through the region. A spokesperson at the US embassy in the UAE said there was cause for alarm.

“We are concerned and are coordinating with partners,” a State Department official said, adding it was too early to offer a definitive judgment. “As we said in the context of the Iranian attack on the Mercer Street, we have seen a very disturbing pattern of belligerence from Iran, including belligerence in the maritime domain.”

David Hammond, CEO of Human Rights at Sea, told The Media Line the situation was putting further strain on the global seafaring community, which has been under immense pressure already due to the pandemic.

“Additional challenges of hijackings, armed robbery and piracy only serve to compound the excessive pressures felt by seafarers and their families,” he said.

Olivia Kourmadias, an analyst at Dryad Global maritime security experts, said the incidents of Friday and Tuesday were not being assessed as related and as such, not deemed an escalation of the Israel-Iran shadow war.

“Escalation of the detainment of the Asphalt Princess is unlikely, as it merely reflects a pattern of incidents concerning detainment and interdiction conducted by the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] and the Iranian Navy,” she said.

However, should geopolitical tensions with Iran remain high or escalate, there will be repercussions for the maritime industry, Kourmadias warned. “There is an opening for retaliatory attacks by states such as Iran and others implicated in Iranian attacks. In these instances, there would be a heightened risk within the area,” Kourmadias added.

Given the area’s importance as the only route to the open ocean for a sixth of global oil production and a third of the world’s liquefied natural gas, there will be implications such as increased insurance premiums, but as the situation stands, the threat level remains low, she said.

Kourmadias added, however, that as the Gulf of Oman is the primary operating region of the Iranian Navy, with the IRGC-N [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy] operating within the wider Persian Gulf, it is, however, a region fraught with geopolitical tensions, motivated by Iran’s ongoing tensions with the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

“Iran subsequently engages in considerable posturing and aggressive tactics, to assert its military dominance in the region, and dispute foreign influence in its affairs,” which has resulted in incidents that primarily manifest themselves as interdicting and detaining vessels allied with Iranian adversaries, as was the case with Tuesday’s incident with the Asphalt Princess, she said.

“However, on occasion, this has manifested as violent attacks, most recently seen in the attack on Israeli-allied vessel MT Mercer Street,” Kourmadias said.

News on Tuesday claimed six other vessels in the area marked as “not under command,” a term meaning vessels have lost power and cannot steer. However, Samir Madani, co-founder of TankerTrackers said in a tweet on Wednesday that this had created unnecessary alarm.

“As for the ‘Not Under Command’ AIS [automated identification system] message which created sensationalism and panic, the mariners who selected that message should have gone with ‘Drifting’ instead. When the water is too deep for the anchor chain, you can’t drop anchor, so you drift instead. 15 vessels had that msg,” he said.

The maritime security expert tweeted that the events on Tuesday were nothing more than a show of force from the Iranian regime: “That vessel [the hijackers’] is part of IRGC’s theatrical fleet. They love to put on a show whenever they wish to demonstrate force and chaos.”

This week, the UK, US and Israel publicly blamed Iran for the drone attack on Thursday night, and a series of high-level diplomatic meetings were held warning Iran against further aggressions.

On Monday, Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, said of the incident: “We are in very close contact and coordination with the United Kingdom, Israel, Romania and other countries, and there will be a collective response.”

Blinken added: “Iran continues to act with tremendous irresponsibility when it comes to, in this instance, threats to navigation, to commerce, to innocent sailors who are simply engaged in commercial transit in international waters.”

The hijacking came as Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi took office on Tuesday, the same day that his Foreign Ministry’s spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, said claims of Tehran’s involvement were false propaganda serving political motives, according to the state news agency, IRNA.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran’s basic policy is to establish stability and security in the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman,” IRNA reported, with Khatibzadeh claiming that the Iranian naval forces are ready to assist the passing ships in the region in case they broadcast SOS messages and the country is ready to cooperate with regional powers.

The incidents mark the escalation of tensions in the area in recent years, which also saw Prime Tankers (UAE), operators of the Asphalt Princess, victim to a vessel seizure back in 2019 when the MT Riah was seized by Iran following allegations of smuggling.

That same year, the US Navy blamed Iran for a series of limpet mine attacks on vessels that damaged tankers.

In July 2020, an oil tanker sought by the US over allegations of circumventing sanctions on Iran was hijacked off the UAE coast. It followed several months of tension between the US and Iran. While the vessel and its crew ended up in Iran, Tehran never acknowledged the incident.

The international community must do what it can to ensure the safety of seafarers, said Hammond.

“It is crucial for the stability of global trade and for the safety, security and welfare of all seafarers to have freedom of navigation in international waters under maritime law protected and assured,” he said.