Mysterious “Potential Hijack” Of Commercial Ship Ongoing In The Gulf Of Oman

Sky News, citing a “security source” has reported that the Panama-flagged asphalt/bitumen carrier Asphalt Princess had been boarded by “eight or nine armed individuals,” but, so far, there has been no further confirmation of this. The Times newspaper in the United Kingdom has cited its own anonymous sources as saying British authorities are “working on the assumption [that] Iranian military or proxies boarded the vessel.”

The Associated Press
has also reported that the Automatic Identification System transponders on at least four tanker ships – the Guyana-flagged Queen Ematha, the Hong Kong-flagged Golden Brilliant, the India-flagged Jag Pooja, and the Vietnam-flagged Abyss – in the general area of this reported incident are showing them “not under command,” when generally means a vessel has lost power and the ability to steer. Earlier reports had indicated that the Cook Islands-flagged asphalt/bitumen carrier Kamdhenu was also “not under command.” It is not necessarily uncommon for ships to show this status, which could simply indicate that they have shut down due to an accident or for a variety of other reasons. 

The presence of the C-295 overhead certainly further suggests that this incident is significant. UKMTO’s description of what is going on as a “potential hijack,” but one unrelated to piracy, is also curious. It is also worth noting that UKMTO initially reported what happened to Mercer Street as a non-piracy incident, as well, before issuing a new notice stating that it had been an “attack – non-piracy” hours later.

Iran does have a history of boarding and seizing foreign ships, typically in reaction to a variety of disputes with other countries. It generally carries out such operations either in or very close to its territorial waters, especially in the narrow confines of the Strait of Hormuz, which links the Gulf of Oman to the Persian Gulf. However, Iranian officials also typically announce these seizures soon after they occur. For its part, the Iranian Foreign Ministry has described what is going on as “suspicious” and has warned against creating a “false atmosphere” regarding the involvement of the regime in Tehran. 

Unconfirmed reports had also earlier emerged, citing channels on the Telegram messaging and social media app with purported links to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), that one or more ships in the area might have been damaged by mines. However, so far, there have been no official statements from any relevant authorities in the region or elsewhere substantiating those rumors. There was a string of limpet mine attacks on tankers near Fujairah in 2019, which the United States, among others, subsequently blamed on Iran.

Regardless, that this new incident has occurred so soon after the attack on Mercer Street, which was headed for Fujairah at the time, has already prompted speculation about Iranian involvement. “We are in very close contact in coordination with the United Kingdom, Israel, Romania, and other countries. And there will be a collective response,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said regarding that attack yesterday.

At the same time, Mercer Street is operated by U.K.-based Zodiac Maritime, a firm owned by an Israeli billionaire real estate and shipping magnate, Eyal Ofer, and appeared to have been the latest victim of a tit-for-tat campaign between Iran and Israel. Reports have indicated that the two countries have been waging a shadow war against each others’ commercial and military vessels since at least 2019 and there have been multiple reported attacks on Israel-linked vessels in recent months. There are no indications as of yet that any of the ships that might be involved in this new incident have any connections to Israel.

All told, the exact nature of this security incident in the Gulf of Oman, or even what ship or ships have been impacted, remains unclear. We will continue to update this story as more information becomes available.

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