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US Navy says drone strike hits oil tanker in Oman, killing 2, as Israel and Britain blame Iran

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The United Kingdom claims that Iran carried out a drone strike that killed two crew members in an oil tanker off the coast of Oman in the Arabian Sea.

“We believe this attack was deliberate, targeted and a clear violation of international law by Iran,” Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in a statement Sunday night.

Raab said one or more drones were used in the attack carried out Thursday night on the Mercer Street oil tanker.

While no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, the Israeli prime minister on Sunday directly blamed Iran, making a covert threat of retaliation after Tehran denied involvement.

United Kingdom, Romanian citizens were killed

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the Iranians “intended to harm an Israeli target” and instead “caused the death of a British citizen and a Romanian citizen”.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh described the allegations as “baseless.”

U.S. Navy explosive experts believe a “drone strike” targeted the oil tanker, the U.S. military said Saturday.

The attack marks the first known fatal attack after many years of attacks on merchant ships in the region linked to tensions with Iran over its shredded nuclear deal.

US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and guided missile destroyer USS Mitscher were escorting Mercer Street on its way to a safe haven, the US Navy’s 5th Fleet said in a statement early Saturday.

“US Navy explosives experts are on board to ensure there is no additional risk to the crew and are prepared to support an investigation into the attack,” the 5th Fleet said. “Initial indications clearly indicate a style (drone) attack.”

The Fifth Fleet statement did not explain how it was determined that a drone caused the damage, although it described its explosive experts as finding “clear visual evidence that an attack had occurred” on Mercer Road. U.S. Army Central Command did not immediately respond to inquiries about the evidence.

Damage to the cistern bridge

The drone strike exploded a hole in the top of the oil tanker bridge, where the captain and crew command the ship, a U.S. official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as an investigation into the attack was still ongoing.

Mercer Street is managed by the London-based Zodiac Maritime, part of the Zodiac Group of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer. The firm said one of the crew members who died was from the UK and the other from Romania. He did not name them or describe what happened.

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

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, photographed in Rome in June, said he had spoken to British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab about the ‘need to respond harshly’ to the attack. (Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

Mercer Road, empty of cargo, was launched from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to Fujairah, UAE, at the time of the attack, Zodiac Maritime said. The attack targeted the tanker just northeast of the Omani island of Masirah, over 300 kilometers southeast of Oman’s capital, Muscat. Oman’s state news agency described the area as “beyond Oman’s regional waters” and said its forces responded to the tanker call for today.

The Zodiac Maritime described the owners of Mercer Street as Japanese, without naming them. Transportation Authority Lloyd’s List identified the final owner of the ship as Taihei Kaiun Co., which belongs to the Tokyo-based Nippon Yusen Group.

US promises investigation

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid wrote on Twitter late Friday that he spoke with British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab about the “need to respond harshly” to the attack, though he did not directly blame 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 undermines freedom of navigation.”

Lapid spoke with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Saturday. The State Department said the two diplomats “agreed to work with the UK, Romania and other international partners to investigate the facts, secure support and consider appropriate next steps”.

Other ships linked to Israel were targeted

Other Israeli-linked ships have been targeted in recent months, also amid a shadow war between the two nations, with Israeli officials blaming the Islamic Republic for the attacks.

Israel, meanwhile, has been suspected of a series of major attacks targeting Iran’s nuclear program. Also, Iran saw that its largest warship sank recently in mysterious circumstances in the nearby Gulf of Oman.

Thursday’s attack comes amid heightened tensions over Iran’s shredded nuclear deal and after negotiations to restore the deal stalled in Vienna. The series of ship attacks allegedly carried out by Iran began a year after then-US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the 2018 deal.

The Mercer Street attack also came a night after Blinken, speaking from Kuwait, warned Iran that talks in Vienna on the nuclear deal “could not go on indefinitely”.

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

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