In a still unfolding situation that is being closely monitored by the international community, British authorities are warning of a potential attack and hijacking of a vessel in the Gulf of Oman approximately 60 miles east of the United Arab Emirates city of Fujairah. Conflicting reports began emerging after the British warning with the authorities saying that the attack was being investigated as an assault by Iran or Iranian-backed militias, while Iranian authorities quickly dismissed the reports and said they were prepared to offer assistance to any vessel in distress.
The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) sent out a brief warning cautioning ships operating in the region. They labeled the incident a potential hijacking and not an act of piracy. They initially said they had received reports from an unidentified third party and would be investigating and later upgraded their reports to a potential hijacking.
WARNING 001/AUG/2021 Update 01— United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) (@UK_MTO) August 3, 2021
Category: Incident – Potential Hijack – Non Piracy
Description: An Incident is currently underway in position 2502.00NN 05728.54E. Incident upgraded to Potential Hijack.https://t.co/TMgzxKatV8#MaritimeSecurity #MarSec pic.twitter.com/s5GDqW4NYV
The security advisory services Dryad Global and Aurora International both later identified the vessel as a bitumen – asphalt tanker, the 9,748 dwt Asphalt Princess. The vessel was believed to be underway between the UAE and Oman. The vessel is registered in Panama and operated by a company based in Dubai called Prime Tankers. The same company had a 2019 incident with Iran which was accused of hijacking another of the company’s vessels while Iranian authorities said they were towing a disabled vessel to port.
The latest AIS data and reports from the region place the Asphalt Princess still near the center of the Gulf of Oman nearly stopped. The BBC is quoting sources with unconfirmed reports that the vessel has been ordered to sail to Iran after being boarded by eight or nine armed men.
Aurora International and other sources, however, continue to report that the vessel remains in the Gulf of Oman with the Royal Air Force of Oman circling overhead presumably monitoring the situation. British and American forces in the region are also believed to be monitoring. Ned Price, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said during a normal briefing today, “we are aware of the reports of a maritime incident in the Gulf of Oman. We are concerned. We are looking into it.”
#BreakingNews Unconfirmed reports involving the vessel ASPHALT PRINCESS off Fujairah.— Dryad Global (@GlobalDryad) August 3, 2021
👉 incident reported ongoing by UKMTO location 24 59.5N 057 28.6E
👉 incident reported 1230UTC
👉 Omani Royal Air Force C-295 maritime patrol aircraft currently over reported location
Earlier in the day, there were various unconfirmed reports that five or six tankers in the region had all reported that they were experiencing problems with navigation. It led to speculation of everything including a possible cyberattack on vessels in the area, although later reports said at least two of the vessels are again underway.
The Times of London reported that British authorities are “working on the assumption Iranian military or proxies board the vessel.” Iran’s Foreign Ministry quickly refuted the reports as suspicious and unfounded accusations. Iranian authorities continue to accuse the western powers of “creating a false atmosphere,” while also denying earlier reports that Iran was responsible for the attack on a Japanese tanker managed by an Israeli company last week that killed two people, the captain and a security officer aboard the ship.
The captain of the tanker was a Romanian national, leading the country to make statements denouncing Iran. The regime in Tehran responded by summoning the Romanian ambassador demanding a retraction of false reports. The U.S. Navy escorted the tanker after what was believed to be a drone attack to a safe anchorage where the investigation is ongoing.
U.S. and U.K. government officials both blamed Iran for the previous attacks and for raising tensions in the region. They called for a coordinated international response to Iran’s aggression in the region.