THE US Navy believe a drone strike targeted an oil tanker that came under attack off the coast of Oman in the Arabian Sea, killing two.
Iran had already said the attack was revenge for Israeli strikes on Syria.
TEHRAN GETS TOUGH
The strike Thursday night on the 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 Tehran launched the drone strike.
While Iran did not directly acknowledge the attack, the strike comes as Tehran now appears poised to take an even tougher approach with the West as the country prepares to inaugurate a hard-line protégé of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as president.
The American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and the guided missile destroyer USS Mitscher were escorting the Mercer Street as it headed to a safe port, the U.S. Navy’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet said in a statement early Saturday.
"NÓS. 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.”
BRIT, ROMANIAN KILLED
The 5th Fleet statement did not explain how it determined a drone caused the damage, although it described its explosive experts finding “clear visual evidence that an attack had occurred” aboard the Mercer Street.
A hole was blasted through the top of the oil tanker’s bridge, where the captain and crew command the vessel, a U.S. official said.
The Mercer Street is managed by London-based Zodiac Maritime, part of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group.
Two crew members, one from the United Kingdom and the other from Romania, were killed. They have not been named.
The Mercer Street, empty of cargo, had been on its way from Dar es Salaam, Tanzânia, to Fujairah, Emirados Árabes Unidos, at the time of the attack, Zodiac Maritime said.
It was targeted just northeast of the Omani island of Masirah, 185 miles southeast of Oman’s capital, Muscat.
Oman’s state-run news agency late Friday described the area as “beyond Omani regional waters” and said its forces responded to the tanker’s mayday call.
‘NEED TO RESPOND SEVERLY’
Israeli officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorized to talk to the media, blamed Tehran for the attack. They offered no evidence to support their claim.
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 Iran.
“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, with Israeli officials blaming the Islamic Republic for the assaults.
Israel meanwhile has been suspected in a series of major attacks targeting Iran’s nuclear program.
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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 attack on the Mercer Street also came the night after U.S. Secretary of State Antony 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 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 on board while in the northern Indian Ocean, according to the U.S. Maritime Administration.