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Pompeo: Iran is responsible for tanker attacks near Strait of Hormuz

U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo deliver remarks to the media in the press briefing room at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on June 13, 2019. (State Department photo by Michael Gross/Released)

This is a breaking news story. Please check back for updates as more information becomes available. This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the United States assesses that Iran is responsible for Oman Gulf tanker attacks.

[“Iran is lashing out because the regime wants our successful maximum pressure campaign lifted,” he told reporters on Thursday, the Washington Examiner reported. “The international community condemns Iran’s assault on the freedom of navigation and the targeting of innocent civilians.”

“This assessment is based on intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping, and the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication,” he added.]

Dozens of crew members have been rescued after two commercial oil tankers were hit by blasts and caught fire in the Gulf of Oman, in what the United States has called “unacceptable” attacks.

Ship operators said that 21 crew members on board the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous tanker and 23 on the Front Altair, owned by Norway, were evacuated safely by nearby vessels.

Iranian state media reported that it rescued the 44 after the vessels caught fire and transferred them to an Iranian port, a claim disputed by the United States, which said its navy had come to the rescue of some of those aboard the ships.

One crewman was said to have been slightly injured.

The June 13 incidents come a month after attacks on four tankers off the nearby United Arab Emirates increased tensions between Tehran and Washington and U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf.

“It’s unacceptable for any party to attack commercial shipping and today’s attacks on ships in the Gulf of Oman raise very serious concerns,” acting U.S. Ambassador to the UN Jonathan Cohen told a Security Council meeting on June 13.

“The U.S. government is providing assistance and will continue to assess the situation,” Cohen said.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned at the meeting that the world cannot afford “a major confrontation in the Gulf region.”

“I strongly condemn any attack against civilian vessels. Facts must be established and responsibilities clarified,” Guterres said.

The United States planned to raise the issue of “safety and freedom of navigation” in the Gulf during a closed-door meeting of the Security Council later in the day, council diplomats were quoted as saying.

The Japanese government said the two tankers carried “Japan-related” cargo.

The reported attacks in the Gulf of Oman came as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was wrapping up his two-day landmark visit to Tehran.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif described the incidents as “suspicious,” saying they occurred while Abe was meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for “extensive and friendly talks.”

“Suspicious doesn’t begin to describe what likely transpired this morning,” Zarif tweeted.

The Seafarers Union of Russia said there were 12 Russians among those evacuated, according to the Interfax news agency.

Russia’s state-controlled RIA Novosti news agency reported that all of the Russians rescued from the tanker incident in the Gulf of Oman were “safe” and had not been injured.

The Bahrain-based U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet earlier said it had received two distress calls, adding that U.S. Navy ships were assisting.

The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, a maritime safety group run by the British Navy, urged “extreme caution” in the area.

International Tanker Management, the firm that operates the Front Altair, said an explosion caused a fire on board the vessel, which was heading to the Far East with a petroleum product known as naptha.

Another shipping firm, BSM Ship Management, said an “incident” on board the Kokuka Courageous damaged the ship’s hull starboard side. The vessel was carrying methanol.

The operators said the crews were evacuated by nearby vessels.

Iran’s IRIB news agency tweeted images of what it said was the Front Altair ablaze.

Tehran has been locked in a bitter standoff with Washington since the United States one year ago pulled out of a landmark 2015 nuclear agreement between world powers and Iran.

Since then, Washington has reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran, stepped up its rhetoric, and beefed up its military presence in the Middle East, raising fears of a possible armed conflict.

The U.A.E. blamed last month’s attacks just outside the Strait of Hormuz, a vital shipping route for global oil and gas supplies, on an unnamed “state actor,” while the United States alleged that Iran used mines to attack the four tankers — an accusation Tehran denied.

“Some parties in the region are trying to instigate fires in the region and we must be aware of that,” Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit told the Security Council on June 13, without specifically naming anyone.

Kuwait’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled al-Sabah said the incidents were threatening international security.

“This is the most recent event in a series of acts of sabotage that are threatening the security of maritime corridors as well as threatening energy security of the world,” he said.

In Moscow, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned against drawing quick conclusions on the latest incidents.

“Measures to normalize the situation around Iran are needed. We need to be calm and unbiased when investigating what happened, avoid rash conclusions that can turn up the pressure cooker,” Ryabkov said, according to the TASS news agency.

During his talks with the Japanese prime minister, Khamenei ruled out any negotiations with the United States.

“Iran does not trust the U.S.,” Iran’s state media quoted Khamenei as saying. “We have already had the bitter experience with the Americans over the nuclear deal and do not want to repeat this experience.”

Abe, the first sitting Japanese prime minister to visit Iran in more than 40 years, on June 12 warned that an “accidental conflict” amid heightened tensions between Iran and the United States should be avoided at all costs.