DUBAI • The crews of two oil tankers were evacuated off the coast of Iran yesterday after the vessels were reportedly attacked and caught fire in the Gulf of Oman, sending world oil prices soaring.
The mystery incident, the second involving shipping in the strategic sea lane in only a few weeks, came amid spiralling tensions between Teheran and Washington, which has pointed the finger at Iran over tanker attacks last month.
Iran said its navy had rescued 44 crew members after the two vessels caught fire in "accidents" off its coast, while the US Fifth Fleet said its warships had received distress calls from both vessels in a "reported attack".
The Norwegian Maritime Authority said three explosions were reported on board the Norwegian-owned tanker Front Altair after it was "attacked", along with the Singapore-owned cargo carrier Kokuka Courageous.
Iranian media said the first incident occurred on board the Front Altair at 8.50am local time, 25 nautical miles off Bandar-e-Jask in southern Iran. The Marshall Islands-flagged tanker was carrying a cargo of ethanol from Qatar to Taiwan, official news agency Irna reported.
"As the ship caught fire, 23 of the crew jumped into the water and were saved by a passing ship and handed over to the Iranian rescue unit," it said. "An hour after the first accident, the second ship caught fire at 9.50am, 28 nautical miles off the port."
The crew members of Front Altair were unharmed, Frontline said.
The Panama-flagged Kokuka Courageous was headed to Singapore from Saudi Arabia with a cargo of methanol, and 21 of its crew jumped and were rescued, according to Irna.
Singapore-based BSM Ship Management, which operates the Kokuka Courageous, said it "launched a full-scale emergency response following a security incident". "The 21 crew of the vessel abandoned ship after the incident on board which resulted in damage to the ship's hull starboard side," it said. "One crew man from the Kokuka Courageous was slightly injured in the incident."
It said the vessel is about 70 nautical miles from the United Arab Emirates and just 14 nautical miles from the coast of Iran.
Teheran said it had dispatched a helicopter from the port of Bandar-e-Jask to the ships' location for "further investigation".
The US Fifth Fleet said: "We are aware of the reported attack on tankers in the Gulf of Oman. US naval forces in the region received two separate distress calls at 6.12am local time and a second one at 7am."
Oil prices spiked after a merchant shipping information service run by Britain's Royal Navy reported an "incident" in the Gulf of Oman.
The Gulf of Oman lies at the other end of the strategic Strait of Hormuz from the Gulf, part of a vital shipping lane through which at least 15 million barrels of crude oil and hundreds of millions of dollars of non-oil imports pass.
STILL UNEXPLAINED ATTACKS
On May 12, four oil tankers - one Norwegian, one Emirati and two Saudi - were damaged in still unexplained attacks in the Gulf of Oman, off the United Arab Emirates.
On May 12, four oil tankers - two Saudi, one Norwegian and one Emirati - were damaged in still unexplained attacks in the Gulf of Oman, off the United Arab Emirates.
US national security adviser John Bolton said Iranian naval mines were almost certainly behind those attacks but declined to provide evidence that Teheran was involved.
Iran has repeatedly rejected accusations that it was behind the sabotage. But its arch-rival Saudi Arabia still maintains it was the most likely culprit.
Saudi King Salman earlier this month warned a meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation that "terrorist" attacks in the Gulf region could imperil global oil supplies, as he sought to galvanise support among Islamic countries against arch-rival Iran.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was yesterday holding unprecedented talks in Teheran with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in an effort to defuse the US-Iran tensions which have triggered global concern.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS