Hijackers who seized a vessel off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in the Gulf of Oman have left the ship, according to the Royal Navy.
Recorded radio traffic appeared to reveal a crew member onboard saying Iranian gunmen had stormed the asphalt tanker.
The British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations reported that the incident, which it had described as a “potential hijack” the night before, was “complete”. It did not provide further details.
“The vessel is safe,” the group said, without identifying the ship.
Shipping authority Lloyd’s List and maritime intelligence firm Dryad Global had identified the hijacked vessel as Panama-flagged asphalt tanker Asphalt Princess.
Hints of what unfolded began to emerge with the maritime radio recording, obtained by commodities pricing firm Argus Media and shared with The Associated Press.
In the audio, a crew member can be heard telling the Emirati coast guard that five or six armed Iranians had boarded the tanker.
“Iranian people are onboard with ammunition,” the crew member says. “We are … now, drifting. We cannot tell you exact our ETA to (get to) Sohar,” the port in Oman listed on the vessel’s tracker as its destination.
It was not clear whether the crew members, whom he identified as Indian and Indonesian, were in immediate danger.
The vessel’s owner, listed as Emirati free zone-based Glory International, could not immediately be reached for comment.
Satellite-tracking data for the Asphalt Princess had showed it gradually heading towards Iranian waters off the port of Jask early on Wednesday, according to MarineTraffic.com. Later, however, it stopped and changed course back towards Oman, just before the UKMTO made its statement.
It was not immediately clear who was responsible for the attempted hijack, which unfolded amid heightened tensions between Iran and the West over Tehran’s tattered 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
Over the past few years, commercial shipping in vital Persian Gulf waterways has increasingly been caught in the crosshairs.
Most recently, the US, the UK and Israel have blamed Iran for a drone attack on an oil tanker linked to an Israeli billionaire off the coast of Oman that killed two people, including a Briton.
The raid was the first known fatal assault in the shadow war targeting vessels in Middle East waters. Tehran has denied involvement.
Apparently responding to Tuesday’s ship seizure, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh described recent maritime attacks in the Persian Gulf as “completely suspicious”. He denied that Iran played any role.
Late on Tuesday, as the incident was under way, six oil tankers off the coast of Fujairah had announced around the same time through their Automatic Identification System trackers that they were “not under command”, according to MarineTraffic.com. That typically means a vessel has lost power and can no longer steer.
The Gulf of Oman is near the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a fifth of all oil passes.
Fujairah, on the UAE’s eastern coast, is a main port in the region for ships to take on new oil cargo, pick up supplies or trade out crew.
For the past two years, the waters off Fujairah have seen a series of explosions and hijackings.
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