(WASHINGTON) — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday said Iran is responsible for the attack on two commercial tanker ships sailing in international waters in the Gulf of Oman earlier in the day.
“It is the assessment of the United States government that the Islamic Republic of Iran is responsible for the attacks that occurred in the Gulf of Oman today. This assessment is based on intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping, and the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high-degree of sophistication,” Pompeo told reporters at the State Department.
He added that the U.S. “will defend its forces, interests and stand with our partners and allies to safeguard global commerce and regional stability.”
One ship reportedly was on fire and the other suffered damage. Meanwhile, 21 mariners from one of the ships were taken aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer after having abandoned the damaged ship, which U.S. sailors reported to have spotted an unexploded mine attached to its hull, a U.S. official told ABC News. The 23 mariners from the other vessel were taken to Iran.
The attacks come at a time of heightened tensions between the United States and Iran after an American aircraft carrier was deployed to the Middle East in what the U.S. said was an effort to deter possible Iranian attacks against U.S. forces or interests in the region.
U.S. officials have publicly blamed Iran for explosive sabotage attacks using mines in mid-May against four commercial vessels off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.
“We are aware of the reported attack on shipping vessels in the Gulf of Oman,” said Cmdr. Josh Frey, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. “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. U.S. Navy ships are in the area and are rendering assistance.”
“A Navy P-8 surveillance aircraft is also providing support,” a spokesperson for U.S. Central Command said.
The MT Kokuka Courageous was first to issue a distress call, and its crew of 21 mariners abandoned ship. At the time of the attack, the ship had been transiting through the Gulf of Oman in international waters, close to Iran.
A nearby Dutch tug picked up the mariners and then transferred them to the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Bainbridge that had been in the vicinity and also responded to the distress call, according to an official. The crew of the Bainbridge spotted an unexploded mine attached to the side of the Kokuka Courageous, another official said.
The mariners from the Courageous are currently aboard the Bainbridge being cared for as the destroyer remains at that location. A spokesperson for BSM Ship Management, which own the Courageous, said the crew was from the Philippines, and they have notified their families that they are safe aboard the U.S. Navy ship.
About 45 minutes later distress calls were received from the MT Front Altair, a commercial ship that was a significant distance away from the Kokuka Courageous said the official. The 23 mariners aboard that ship also abandoned ship.
The Seoul-based Hyundai Merchant Marine Co. confirmed in a statement that its ship the Hyundai Dubai had rescued the 23 mariners from the MT Front Altair and then turned them over to an Iranian rescue boat.
According to the Associated Press, both ships were bound for Japan when they were attacked, the Front Altair was carrying a cargo of naptha, a flammable hydrocarbon and the Kokuka Courageous was carrying a cargo of methanol.
Photos showed the MT Front Altair aflame with smoke billowing from the side of the ship.
The attacks come almost a month after four commercial freighters were damaged by explosive sabotage attacks off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. The United States has publicly blamed Iran for placing magnetic explosives to the ships’ hulls, subsequent explosions left 5 to 10 foot gashes in the ships along their waterline.
Prior to that attack there had been sightings of about 20 Iranian fast attack vessels moving through the Strait of Hormuz to the general area where those attacks occurred, said one U.S. official.
That attacks came nearly a week after the United States had accelerated the deployment to the Middle East of the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group and sent B-52 bombers to deter possible Iranian attacks to U.S. forces and interests in the region. The Lincoln was in port in Oman, but pulled out back into open waters on Thursday morning, an official said.
Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, told reporters that the deployment had led Iran to “step back and recalculate” though the U.S. still saw “possible imminent threats.”
Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister tweeted that the timing of attack on the tankers was suspicious because it occurred during a meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Ayatollah Khameini, Iran’s supreme leader.
“Suspicious doesn’t begin to describe what likely transpired this morning,” he tweeted.
Earlier, Khameini had said during his meeting with Abe that that while Tehran doesn’t want an atomic bomb, “America could not do anything” to stop Iran if it did.
Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.