Iranian-backed forces are believed to have seized an oil tanker in the Gulf off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, three maritime security sources say.
The apparent confirmation comes after Britain’s maritime trade agency reported a “potential hijack” in the area on Tuesday (local time).
Abolfazl Shekarchi, Iran’s senior armed forces spokesman, denounced reports of maritime incidents and hijacking in the Gulf area as “a kind of psychological warfare and setting the stage for new bouts of adventurism”, the Fars News Agency said.
Two of the maritime sources identified the seized vessel as the Panama-flagged bitumen tanker Asphalt Princess in an area in the Arabian Sea leading to the Strait of Hormuz, the conduit for about a fifth of the world’s seaborne oil exports.
The US State Department said it was concerned and looking into reports of a maritime incident in the Gulf of Oman. Britain’s foreign ministry said it was “urgently investigating” an incident on a vessel off the UAE coast.
US officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the US military was expected to reposition at least one vessel in the general vicinity of the Asphalt Princess to keep a closer eye.
Tensions have simmered in the region after an attack last week on an Israeli-managed tanker, the Mercer Street, off the Omani coast killed two crew members.
It was blamed on Iran by the US, Israel and Britain. Iran has denied responsibility.
The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations had earlier reported a “potential hijack” and advised ships to exercise extreme caution due to the incident about 60 nautical miles east of the UAE’s Fujairah emirate.
The Times newspaper also reported the Asphalt Princess had been hijacked, citing British sources as saying they were “working on the assumption Iranian military or proxies boarded the vessel”.
The US Navy’s Fifth Fleet and UAE authorities did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
On Tuesday at least five ships between the UAE and Iran updated their AIS tracking status to “Not Under Command”, according to Refinitiv tracking data. Such a status generally indicates a ship is unable to manoeuvre due to exceptional circumstances.
Iran’s Nour News quoted a senior navy official as saying “the movement of commercial vessels is quite normal and no official naval sources or countries in the Persian Gulf have reported any incidents”.
Iran’s foreign ministry warned against any effort to create a “false atmosphere” against Tehran.
The US and Britain said on Sunday they would work with their allies to respond to last week’s attack on the Mercer Street, a Liberian-flagged, Japanese-owned petroleum product tanker managed by Israeli-owned Zodiac Maritime.
Iran denied any involvement in that suspected drone strike.
Tensions have risen in Gulf waters and between Iran and Israel since 2018, when then-president Donald Trump withdrew the US from the 2015 nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions.
Iran and Israel have exchanged accusations of carrying out attacks on each other’s vessels in recent months.