Potential hijack of oil tanker by suspected Iran-backed army is over

The “potential hijack” of an oil tanker off the coast of the United Arab Emirates is over, a Royal Navy threat centre has said after sources blamed the seizure on forces backed by Iran.

Tehran has denied any involvement.

The UK Maritime Trade Organisation, which first revealed something had happened to the Asphalt Princess, said in an update on its website: “Boarders have left the vessel. Vessel is safe. Incident complete.”

It comes at a time of heightened tensions following a suspected Iranian drone attack on an Israeli-linked tanker less than a week ago that left a British national and a Romanian dead.

The British security guard has been named as Adrian Underwood, an army veteran and married father of one, on a crowdfunding site set up to raise money in his memory.

The UK, Israel and the United States have accused Iran of the fatal assault and vowed to respond.

British officials – so far – do not appear to regard the targeting of the Panama-flagged Asphalt Princess, operated by a company based in Dubai, as a new escalation, though there are clearly concerns about a ship allegedly being seized by Iranian-linked gunmen.

A security source said a group of eight or nine individuals were believed have boarded the ship on Tuesday.

“It was an unauthorised boarding in the Gulf of Oman,” the source said.

Two sources said it was highly probable the personnel were backed by Iran.

Tehran, however, has denied the allegations, claiming they had been a pretext for “hostile action” against Iran, state television reported on its website.

The Iranian embassy in the UK on Tuesday evening tweeted: “According to our direct links in the Persian Gulf region, no information on new incidents for any merchant ship in the region is confirmed so far. Misleading the public all around the world for diplomatic gain in New York is not fair game.”

The Asphalt Princess tanker has no links to the UK or Israel.

Aurora Intel, an open source intelligence website, said the vessel is owned by Prime Tanker LLC, which also owns a tanker called the Riat.

In 2019 – during a previous tanker crisis – Iran said it had seized the Riat vessel briefly because of alleged fuel smuggling.

It was not immediately clear why the Asphalt Princess was taken or why the ship was then released

British special forces are already in the region following the suspected drone attack on the Mercer Street tanker last Thursday.

The team is assisting in the investigation into what happened.

The Mercer Street is Japanese owned, but was sailing with a Liberian Flag and is managed by Zodiac Maritime, a UK firm that is part of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group.

Iran’s ambassador to the UK was summoned by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on Tuesday following the Mercer Street incident.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Iran must “face up to the consequences” of its actions, adding that the Mercer Street incident “was clearly an unacceptable and outrageous attack on commercial shipping, a UK national died”.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has promised to work with allies on a “concerted response”.

Israel has also urged a tough reaction. The country is already locked in a shadow conflict with Iran.

Three other tankers linked to Israel have been targeted since February, while Iran has experienced a number of cyber attacks and mysterious explosions.

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