US and Israel to consider 'next steps' after tanker attack kills two

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid discussed Thursday's attack on the 'Mercer Street'

A US Navy personnel member observes the 'Mercer Street' as it sails under US Navy escort following the attack. AFP
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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid will consider the “appropriate next steps” with international partners, following an attack on an oil tanker in the Arabian Sea.

The discussions were followed by a claim by Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Sunday that Israel had intelligence connecting Iran to the attack, which Iran denied on Sunday.

“They agreed to work with the United Kingdom, Romania and other international partners to investigate the facts, provide support and consider the appropriate next steps,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

Mr Blinken on Sunday corroborated Israel's attribution of the attack on the Mercer Street, off the coast of Oman, to Iran.

“Upon review of the available information, we are confident that Iran conducted this attack, which killed two innocent people, using one-way explosive [unmanned aerial vehicles], a lethal capability it is increasingly employing throughout the region,” said Mr Blinken.

“There is no justification for this attack, which follows a pattern of attacks and other belligerent behavior. These actions threaten freedom of navigation through this crucial waterway, international shipping and commerce, and the lives of those on the vessels involved.”

Iran said on Sunday that it was not involved in the attack.

"The Zionist regime [Israel] has created insecurity, terror and violence ... These accusations about Iran's involvement are condemned by Tehran," Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told a weekly news conference streamed online.

"Such accusations are meant by Israel to divert attention from facts and are baseless," he said.

Shortly after Iran issued a denial, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett claimed that Israel had intelligence to prove that Iran was responsible.

"I just heard that Iran, in a cowardly manner, is trying to dodge its responsibility for the incident. So I declare unequivocally: Iran is the one that carried out the attack on the ship," Mr Bennett said during a government meeting.

"The intelligence evidence for this exists and we expect the international community will make it clear to the Iranian regime that they have made a serious mistake.

"In any case, we know how to send a message to Iran in our own way."

Two crew members – a British national and a Romanian citizen – were killed in the attack on the 182-metre vessel, which is managed by London-based Zodiac Maritime, part of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group.

Israeli media first reported news of the two officials discussing the attack on the Mercer Street, which had been on its way from Tanzania to the United Arab Emirates.

Reports cited Mr Lapid as stressing the need for a stronger international response to Iran.

A file photo shows the Mercer Street off Cape Town, South Africa.

On Friday, Mr Lapid said he had ordered the nation's diplomats to push for UN action against “Iranian terrorism".

“Iran is not just an Israeli problem, but an exporter of terrorism, destruction and instability that affects the whole world,” Mr Lapid wrote.

“We can never remain silent in the face of Iranian terrorism, which also harms freedom of navigation.

“I've instructed the embassies in Washington, London and the UN to work with their interlocutors in government and the relevant delegations in the UN headquarters in New York,” he added.

The region has seen repeated attacks on Israeli and Iranian ships since February, with both countries trading accusations and denials.

Iran has not commented directly, but the state-run Al Alam television network reported that the Mercer Street was targeted in retaliation for a recent Israeli strike on Syria.

US Navy explosive experts believe a “drone strike” targeted the oil tanker, the American military said on Saturday.

The American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and the guided missile destroyer USS Mitscher were escorting the Mercer Street as it headed to a safe port, the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet said.

“US Navy explosives experts are aboard to ensure there is no additional danger to the crew, and are prepared to support an investigation into the attack,” a Fifth Fleet official said. “Initial indications clearly point to a [drone]-style attack.”

The attack blasted a hole through the top of the oil tanker’s bridge, where the captain and crew command the vessel, a US official said.

Updated: August 01, 2021, 6:23 PM