Sat, 21 Sep 2019

Dozens of crew members have been rescued after two tankers transporting petroleum products were reportedly attacked and caught fire in the Gulf of Oman.

The June 13 incidents come a month after attacks on four tankers off the nearby United Arab Emirates increased tensions between Tehran and Washington and U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf.

Ship operators said that 21 crew on board the Kokuka Courageous tanker and 23 on the Front Altair were evacuated safely by nearby vessels.

Iran rescued the 44 crew members after the vessels caught fire, and transferred them to an Iranian port, state media reported.

One crewman was said to have been slightly injured.

The Japanese government said the two tankers carried 'Japan-related' cargo.

The Bahrain-based U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet earlier said it had received two distress calls, adding that U.S. Navy ships were assisting.

The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, a maritime safety group run by the British Navy, urged 'extreme caution' in the area.

International Tanker Management, the firm that operates the Front Altair, said an explosion caused a fire on board the vessel, which was heading to the Far East with a petroleum product known as naptha.

Another shipping firm, BSM Ship Management, said an 'incident' on board the Kokuka Courageous damaged the ship's hull on the starboard side. The vessel was carrying methanol.

The operators said the crews were evacuated by nearby vessels.

Location of the tanker incident in the Gulf of Oman

Meanwhile, Iran's official news agency IRNA reported that the Iranian navy had rescued the 44 crew members from the two oil tankers after the vessels caught fire following an 'accident.'

The sailors were transferred to the port of Bandar-e Jask in Hormozgan Province, IRNA quoted an unidentified source as saying.

Iran's IRIB news agency tweeted images of what it said was the ablaze Front Altair.

Tehran has been locked in a bitter standoff with Washington since the United States one year ago pulled out of a landmark 2015 nuclear agreement between world powers and Iran.

Since then, Washington has reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran, stepped up its rhetoric, and beefed up its military presence in the Middle East, raising fears of a possible armed conflict.

The U.A.E. blamed last month's attacks just outside the Strait of Hormuz, a vital shipping route for global oil and gas supplies, on an unnamed 'state actor,' while the United States alleged that Iran used mines to attack the four tankers -- an accusation Tehran denied.

The reported attacks in the Gulf of Oman come as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was wrapping up his two-day landmark visit to Tehran.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif described the incidents as 'suspicious,' saying they occurred while Abe was meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for 'extensive and friendly talks.'

'Suspicious doesn't begin to describe what likely transpired this morning,' Zarif tweeted.

In Moscow, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned against drawing quick conclusions on the latest incidents.

'Measures to normalize the situation around Iran are needed. We need to be calm and unbiased when investigating what happened, avoid rash conclusions that can turn up the pressure cooker,' Ryabkov said, according to the TASS news agency.

During his talks with the Japanese prime minister, Khamenei ruled out any negotiations with the United States.

'Iran does not trust the U.S.,' Iran's state media quoted Khamenei as saying. 'We have already had the bitter experience with the Americans over the nuclear deal and do not want to repeat this experience.'

Abe, the first sitting Japanese prime minister to visit Iran in more than 40 years, on June 12 warned that an 'accidental conflict' amid heightened tensions between Iran and the United States should be avoided at all costs.

With reporting by the BBC, Reuters, AP, AFP, and dpa

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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