- Suspected Iranian gunmen temporarily hijacked a tanker in the Gulf of Oman Tuesday.
- They forcibly boarded the ship, assaulted the crew, and departed after about 7 hours, a US official said.
- The official said a US aircraft saw the Iranians take something from the ship when they left.
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Suspected Iranian gunmen hijacked the tanker Asphalt Princess on Tuesday, assaulting the crew and destroying equipment before rapidly departing the ship, a US official told Insider.
The gunmen wearing Iranian coast guard uniforms forcibly boarded and seized control of the ship for about seven hours before leaving the scene, the official said.
“Our aircraft photographed the Iranian gunmen onboard and observed them removing something from the ship as they departed,” the official added, noting that the situation looked like an “Iranian state-sponsored shakedown by Iranian forces” and that it had “all the hallmarks of international piracy.”
A US Navy guided-missile destroyer was dispatched to the area, but it did not arrive until after the gunmen had left. It made contact with the crew, which reported that members were assaulted and the master was held at gunpoint.
“We are troubled by the temporary forcible seizure of the M/V Asphalt Princess by Iranian gunmen,” a US Central Command spokesperson told Insider. “We are looking into the incident, but do not have an understanding of what the Iranians were doing at this time, or why they would impede the transit of this legitimate commercial vessel.”
The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, a Royal Navy capability, reported Tuesday that “an incident is currently underway” in the Gulf of Oman.
A later update said that the unexplained incident has been “upgraded to potential hijack.” Hours later, the British agency reported that the “boarders have left the vessel” and that the “vessel is safe.”
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, US State Department spokesman Ned Price said that “we can confirm that personnel have left the Panama-flagged Asphalt Princess, this commercial vessel that was seized yesterday.”
The spokesman said that the boarding party is believed to have been Iranian, though he did not confirm their nationality.
In a recording of a maritime radio conversation between the tanker crew and the Emirati coast guard that was shared with the Associated Press, a crew member can be heard saying that five or six armed Iranians had boarded the tanker.
The Times, citing UK government sources, said “the Iranians got on board and tried to take it back to Iran but the crew scuppered the engines,” leaving it “bobbing in the water,” unable to go anywhere. The Telegraph reported the same. The gunmen reportedly departed as foreign warships began to move into the area.
Iran has denied any involvement in Tuesday’s incident. Iranian Foreign Minister Saeed Khatibzadeh said the reported incidents are “utterly suspicious.” He asserted that Iran has a “strong commitment to regional stability & maritime security” and is “ready to offer assistance” in emergency situations.