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Drone strike hit oil tanker off the coast of Oman, killing 2, U.S. Navy says

U.S. soldiers at a helicopter
U.S. sailors on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan prepare to head to an oil tanker that was attacked Thursday in the Arabian Sea.
(Associated Press)

Explosives experts from the U.S. Navy believe a drone strike targeted an oil tanker that came under attack off the coast of Oman in the Arabian Sea, killing two onboard, the American military said Saturday.

The strike Thursday night on the British-managed oil tanker Mercer Street marks the first known fatal attack after years of assaults on commercial shipping in the region linked to tensions with Iran over its tattered nuclear deal. While no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, Israeli officials alleged that Tehran launched the drone strike.

Iran did not directly acknowledge the attack. But the strike comes as Tehran appears poised to take an even tougher approach with the West and prepares to inaugurate as president a hard-line protege of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan and the guided missile destroyer Mitscher are escorting the Mercer Street as it heads to a safe port, the U.S. Navy’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet said in a statement early Saturday.

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“U.S. Navy explosives experts are aboard to ensure there is no additional danger to the crew and are prepared to support an investigation into the attack,” the 5th Fleet said. “Initial indications clearly point to a [drone]-style attack.”

The 5th Fleet statement did not explain how it determined that a drone caused the damage, although it described its explosive experts finding “clear visual evidence that an attack had occurred” aboard the Mercer Street. The U.S. military’s Central Command did not immediately respond to questions on the evidence.

An oil tanker on the water with a seaside city in the background.
The oil tanker Mercer Street off Cape Town, South Africa, in 2016.
(Associated Press)

The Mercer Street is managed by London-based Zodiac Maritime, part of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group. The firm said the attack killed two crew members, from the United Kingdom and Romania. It did not name them, nor did it describe what happened in the assault. It said it believed no other crew members were harmed.

British maritime security firm Ambrey said the attack on Mercer Street had killed one of its team members aboard the vessel.

The Mercer Street, empty of cargo, had been on its way from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, at the time of the attack, Zodiac Maritime said.

Zodiac Maritime described the Mercer Street’s owners as Japanese, without naming them. Shipping authority Lloyd’s List identified the vessel’s owner as Taihei Kaiun Co., which belongs to the Tokyo-based Nippon Yusen Group.

Israeli officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorized to talk to the media, blamed Iran for the attack but offered no evidence to support their claim.

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Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid tweeted late Friday that he spoke with British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab about the “need to respond severely” to the attack, although he stopped short of directly blaming Tehran.

“Iran is not just an Israeli problem, but an exporter of terrorism, destruction and instability that affects the whole world,” Lapid wrote. “We can never remain silent in the face of Iranian terrorism, which also harms freedom of navigation.”

Other Israel-linked ships have been targeted in recent months amid a shadow war between the two nations, with Israeli officials blaming Iran for the assaults.

Israel, meanwhile, has been suspected in a series of major attacks targeting the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

Iran saw its largest warship recently sink under mysterious circumstances in the nearby Gulf of Oman.

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Thursday’s attack comes amid heightened tensions over Iran’s tattered nuclear deal and as negotiations over restoring the accord have stalled in Vienna. The series of ship attacks suspected to have been carried out by Iran began a year after President Trump unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from the accord in 2018.

The attack on the Mercer Street also came the night after U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, speaking from Kuwait, warned Iran that talks in Vienna over the nuclear deal “cannot go on indefinitely.”

This is the second time this month that a ship tied to Ofer apparently has been targeted. In early July, the Liberian-flagged container ship CSAV Tyndall, once tied to Zodiac Maritime, suffered an unexplained explosion while in the northern Indian Ocean, according to the U.S. Maritime Administration.


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