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Middle East

Tanker attacks spark fears of escalation in Gulf

media An Iranian navy boat tries to stop the fire of an oil tanker after it was attacked in the Gulf of Oman, June 13, 2019. Tasnim News Agency/Handout via REUTERS

Explosions on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman have ratcheted up tensions between the US and Iran, with Washington blaming Tehran for "attacks". Iran has dismissed the allegations as "baseless". China has urged restraint on both sides.

"It is the assessment of the United States that the Islamic Republic of Iran is responsible for the attacks," US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters.Tehran's foreign ministry hit back on Friday dismissing the US accusations as "baseless". Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif charged the US of "immediately jumping to make allegations ... without a shred of factual or circumstantial evidence".

    The US military's Central Command on Friday released black-and-white footage, appearing to show Iran's Revolutionary Guards removing an unexploded mine from one of the oil tankers targeted in the Gulf of Oman.

    The two tankers, one Norwegian-and one Japanese-owned, caught fire in the Sea of Oman off the coast of Iran on Thursday, escalating tensions across the region and sending world oil prices soaring.

    Confusion over rescue

    The operator of the Japanese-owned ship, Kokuka Courageous, said sailors on board the tanker saw "flying objects" just before the attack, suggesting the vessel wasn't damaged by mines.

    The US Navy rushed to assist the stricken vessels in the Gulf of Oman, near the Strait of Hormuz, a key shipping route for oil between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula, including one that was set ablaze Thursday by an explosion.

    The US military's footage appeared to show a limpet mine on the Kokuka Courageous vessel being removed by a Revolutionary Guard patrol boat.

    "The US and the international community stand ready to defend our interests, including the freedom of navigation," Command spokesman Captain Bill Urban said. "The United States has no interest in engaging in a new conflict in the Middle East. However, we will defend our interests," Urban commented.

    Iran's national English-language Press TV meanwhile aired its own footage of rescued crew members of one of the two tankers seemingly in "full health."

    "This video refutes false reports by some media outlets claiming that Iran avoided helping the sailors working on the vessel," Press TV said, without elaborating on what reports it was referring to.

    'US aggression'

    Thousands of kilometers from the Strait of Hormuz, in Kyrgyzstan, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stayed schtum on the alleged attacks.

    At a China-led security bloc summit, including Russia and India, Rouhani avoided mention of the events in the Sea of Oman, but focused his criticism on US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal last year from the 2015 nuclear deal.

    "The US government over the last two years, violating all the international structures and rules and using its economic, financial and military resources, has taken an aggressive approach and presents a serious risk to stability in the region and the world," Rouhani said, in translated comments.

    Iran has threatened to disrupt oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz if the United States tries to strangle its economy through sanctions.

    Escalation

    Thursday's incidents came a month after four oil tankers – two Saudi, one Norwegian and one Emirati – were damaged in still unexplained attacks off the nearby United Arab Emirates port of Fujairah.

    "The attack against the tankers in the Gulf of Oman is a ... dangerous escalation," the UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, tweeted after the blasts.

    "The responsibility for avoiding an escalation is collective," he said.

    China on Friday echoed those concerns, urging both sides to show restraint.

    "We hope that all the relevant sides can properly resolve their differences and resolve the conflict through dialogue and consultations," Beijing's foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said, urging all parties to "avoid further escalation of tensions."

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