DUBAI/WASHINGTON • Iran yesterday shot down a US military drone it said was on a spy mission over its territory, but Washington said the aircraft was targeted in international air space in "an unprovoked attack".
It was the latest in an escalating series of incidents in the Gulf region, a critical artery for global oil supplies, since the middle of last month that have included explosive strikes on six oil tankers.
Sepah News, the website of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards Corps, said the "spy" drone was brought down over the southern Iranian province of Hormozgan, which is on the Gulf.
The semi-official news agency Fars said the Guards used the locally built "3 Khordad" missile system, which Iran had unveiled five years ago, to destroy the drone.
A US official said the drone was a US Navy MQ-4C Triton and that it had been downed in international air space over the Strait of Hormuz, through which about a third of the world's seaborne oil exits the Gulf.
"This was an unprovoked attack on a US surveillance asset in international air space," Navy Captain Bill Urban, a spokesman for the US military's Central Command, said.
US President Donald Trump tweeted that Iran had made "a very big mistake".
A Revolutionary Guards statement said the drone's identification transponder had been switched off when it was downed, state broadcaster IRIB reported.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry condemned what it called a violation of Iranian air space and warned of the consequences of such "illegal and provocative" measures.
Brigadier-General Hossein Salami, commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary Guards, said the drone's downing carried a "clear message" to Iran's arch-enemy.
The incident fanned fears of wider military conflict in the Middle East as Mr Trump pursues a campaign to isolate Iran over its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes and role in regional wars.
Iran has denied involvement in any of the tanker attacks, but global jitters about a new Middle East conflagration disrupting oil exports have triggered a jump in crude prices. They surged by more than US$3 to above US$63 a barrel yesterday.
Tensions flared when the US pulled out last year from the 2015 nuclear deal between world powers and Iran, worsening as Washington imposed fresh sanctions to throttle Teheran's vital oil trade.
Iran retaliated earlier this week with a threat to breach limits on its nuclear activities imposed by the deal. Upping the ante, Washington said on Monday it would deploy about 1,000 more troops to the Middle East.