Iran briefly captured two more U.S. Navy sea drones on Thursday before releasing them on Friday hours after being confronted by two U.S. Navy warships, officials said. The incident comes just two days after an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) ship seized another American sea drone.
The two U.S. sea drones were “unarmed and taking unclassified photos of the surrounding environment” in an assigned patrol area miles away from the closest sea traffic route, the U.S. Navy said in a statement. The drones were in the area for “more than 200 consecutive days without incident,” the Navy added.
The Iranian navy’s Jamaran destroyer then approached the sea drones and removed the from the water on Thursday afternoon. Nearby U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyers USS Nitze (DDG 94) and USS Delbert D. Black (DDG 119), along with an MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter from each ship, then confront the Iranian ship.
Approximately 18 hours after capturing the two drones, the Iranian warship released them on Friday morning.
Iranian state television claimed the country’s navy found “several unmanned spying vessels abandoned in the international maritime routes,” adding that after examining the drones, Iranian sailors threw one overboard, according to The Associated Press.
“After two warnings to an American destroyer to prevent possible incidents, Jamaran seized the two vessels,” Iranian state TV said. “After securing the international shipping waterway, the Naval Squadron No. 84 released the vessels in a safe area.”
“The U.S Navy was warned to avoid repeating similar incidents in future,” it added.
A U.S. defense official told the AP that prior to handing over the drones, Iranian sailors denied they had them and attempted to hide the drones under tarps.
The incident comes two days after another Iranian ship, Shaid Baziar, briefly captured and began towing a U.S. Navy sea drone in international waters on Tuesday. When confronted by U.S. Navy ship USS Thunderbolt and a helicopter, Iran surrendered the drone immediately.
U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) began operating the Saildrone Explorer sea drone in the Arabian Gulf on Jan. 27 as part of an expansion by the Bahrain-based U.S. 5th Fleet to test the integration of new unmanned systems.
Fifth Fleet Commander Vice Adm. Brad Cooper said Iran’s actions “were flagrant, unwarranted and inconsistent with the behavior of a professional maritime force.”
“U.S. naval forces remain vigilant and will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows while promoting rules-based international order throughout the region,” Cooper added.