Deadly drone attack on tanker escalates Iran-Israel maritime tensions

US and UK blame Iran for the deadly attack last August on Mercer Street, a Liberia-flagged vessel operating on behalf of a company owned by an Israeli businessman . . Iran was accused of using the “Shahed-136,” a so-called “suicide drone” in the attack that killed 2 crew members

By Jonny Hallam, Kareem El Damanhoury, Barbara Starr and Sheena McKenzie, CNN

File photo The Liberian-flagged oil tanker Mercer Street off Cape Town, South Africa in 2016.

 Maritime tensions are escalating in the Middle East following the deadly attack on a tanker connected to an Israeli billionaire in the Arabian Sea.

Two crewmembers, a Briton and a Romanian, died on Thursday when the Mercer Street tanker was attacked by an armed drone believed to be operated by Iran off the coast of Oman.

While Israel and the US are blaming Iran for the attack, Iranian state media has said the incident was in retaliation for an airstrike on a military airport in Syria that it accused Israel of being behind.

The Syrian regime is backed by Iranian forces. No Iranian official has commented on the attack and CNN has reached out to Iran’s foreign ministry for comment.

The vessel was traveling from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania to Fujariah in the United Arab Emirates with no cargo onboard, the ship’s management firm said.

It is reportedly sailing under a Liberian flag, according to the maritime tracking website Marine Traffic. The ship is Japanese-owned and managed by Zodiac Maritime, an international management company headquartered in London and led by Israeli shipping magnate Eyal Ofer.

Israel Blames Iran For Deadly Attack On Oil Tanker that Killed Two

Zodiac also confirmed Friday that the tanker was under its own power and moving to a safe location with a US naval escort. US officials have not said which port the vessel will go to.

A security official with knowledge of the preliminary investigation said the crew reported hearing drone noises followed by explosions, and eruptions in the water. The boat then went radio silent.

The boat’s driver and a security detail then remained on the bridge to pilot the vessel, and were hit in the attack, they added. The dead Briton was a member of the security personnel, the official said.

A US defense official familiar with the details of the incident said Friday that the tanker was attacked by an armed drone thought to be operated by Iran.

Another official said the US responded “to an emergency distress call of an apparent UAV style attack,” and that the ship was escorted to port by the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier and the USS Mitscher destroyer.

The tanker’s crew reported that the drone exploded into its super structure on Thursday, the first US official said. They also reported an unsuccessful attempted drone attack earlier in the day but said that drone fell into the water.

The US military has long noted Iran has drones that operate by flying into targets and exploding on impact.

An official source at Oman’s Maritime Security Center told Oman News Agency on Friday that the incident happened outside Omani waters, the agency said.

Oman sent jets and a Navy ship to the location of the attack, and Omani officials say they were told by the ship and its crew it would continue sailing without the need for assistance, the agency reported.

Deep concerns

This incident comes amid heightened tensions between Israel and Iran and follows a series of attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman in recent years, which the US has blamed on Iran.

Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said that the world needs to stand up to Iran after the incident.

“Iran isn’t only an Israeli problem but an exporter of terror, destruction and instability which harms the entire world. We must never remain silent in the face of Iranian terrorism, which also harms freedom of navigation,” Lapid said in a statement on Twitter.

Lapid added that he had told his British counterpart, Dominic Raab, that the attack on the ship needed a strong response.

The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office said it was “deeply concerned” by the incident off the coast of Oman, in a statement on Twitter.

“Our thoughts are with the loved ones of the British and Romanian nationals killed in the incident,” the statement said. “Vessels must be allowed to navigate freely in accordance with international law,” it added.

Ambrey, the maritime security company that employed the UK crewman killed in the attack, also said in a statement that it was “currently working closely with our client and the relevant authorities, whilst offering all the support possible to the victim’s next of kin.

“Our thoughts are with the family and friends of those involved at this incredibly