The US believes that Iranian “personnel” were behind the brief hijacking of a vessel off the coast of the UAE, the State Department said on Wednesday.
“We can confirm that personnel have left the Panama-flagged Asphalt Princess, this commercial vessel that was seized yesterday,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.
“We believe that these personnel were Iranian but we are not in a position to confirm this at this time,” he added without elaborating.
A British navy-linked maritime monitor had earlier said the potential hijacking was over.
“The vessel is safe,” said the UK Maritime Trade Operations, a public service linked to the British Royal Navy that monitors security risks for civilian shipping.
It had it described the incident as a “non-piracy” potential hijacking on Tuesday night. Several experts have pointed the finger at Iran, with one saying it could be “the new president making his mark".
The tracking status of the ship was “under way using engine” early on Wednesday, Refinitiv ship-tracking data showed.
“The ship was reported abandoned at 2am on Wednesday and the hijackers ran away,” a shipping executive told The National.
Three maritime security sources told Reuters that Iranian-backed forces were believed to have seized the ship.
The vessel had 23 crew on board, comprising 21 Indian nationals, an Indonesian and a Sri Lankan.
The last port it docked at was Basrah in Iraq and it was heading to Karachi port in Pakistan when it was hijacked off the coast of Fujairah, the executive said. The ship is heading now to Sohar port in Oman and was due to arrive there on Wednesday for maintenance, he said.
“The Iranians are acting very irresponsibly, which is nothing new, as they have a history of aggressive action towards international shipping in the Strait of Hormuz area,” said Gerry Northwood, a former Royal Navy captain and now chairman of Mast, a security and risk management organisation.
“It might have something to do with the changes in leadership in Iran, the new president making his mark.”
British newspaper The Times also reported that the Asphalt Princess had been hijacked, citing UK sources as saying they were “working on the assumption Iranian military or proxies boarded the vessel".
A senior Iranian armed forces spokesman denounced reports of the hijacking as “a kind of psychological warfare and setting the stage for new bouts of adventurism”, the Fars News Agency said.
Earlier, four tankers announced at about the same time as the Asphalt Princess that they were “not under command”, MarineTraffic.com reported. That typically means a vessel has lost power and can no longer steer.
“My understanding was that the [Automatic Identification System] on four vessels was spoofed into depicting them as not under command. Whoever did it — probably Iranians — was doing so to create confusion,” Mr Northwood said.
The system transmits a ship's position so that other vessels are aware of where it is.
An Oman Royal Air Force Airbus C-295MPA, a maritime patrol aircraft, flew over the area of the incident for hours, FlightRadar24.com showed.
Britain's Foreign Office was “urgently investigating” the incident, a representative said.
A warning notice advised ships in the area to exercise extreme caution.
US officials told Reuters the US military was considering repositioning at least one vessel in the general vicinity of the Asphalt Princess to keep a closer eye.
The officials said this would not be uncommon and would be to monitor the situation rather than for any imminent military moves.
Tuesday's incident happened only days after a drone struck an oil tanker linked to an Israeli billionaire off the coast of Oman, killing two crew members.
The West has blamed Iran for the attack. Tehran denied playing any role in the incident, although Iran and its allied militias have used similar weaponised drones in previous attacks.
Israel, the US and UK have vowed a “collective response”.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab on Wednesday about efforts to forge a “response to Iran’s attack on the Mercer Street”, the State Department said.
The incident took place near the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow stretch of water through which a fifth of all seaborne oil passes.
Alluding to the reports, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister told a US think tank that he sees an emboldened Iran acting in a negative manner in the region, including endangering shipping.
“We already have an emboldened Iran. Iran is extremely active in the region with its negative activity whether it continues to supply the Houthis [in Yemen] or endanger shipping in the Arabian Gulf … [and] in being part of the destruction that’s happening to Lebanon’s economy,” he said.
The UN secretary general's spokesman Stephane Dujarric highlighted the importance of safeguarding international maritime routes.
“Any attack is, of course, something we condemn. But it is vitally important to ensure freedom of navigation anywhere around the world but especially in that area, which is so critical to world commerce,” Mr Dujarric said.
Fujairah is a main port in the region where ships take on new oil cargo, pick up supplies or change crew.
In 2019, the US Navy blamed Iran for a series of limpet mine attacks on vessels that damaged tankers.
The same year, Iran seized the British-flagged Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz as it was heading from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas to Dubai.
The raid happened after authorities in Gibraltar, a British overseas territory, seized an Iranian supertanker carrying $130 million in crude oil on suspicion of it breaking EU sanctions by taking oil to Syria. Both vessels were later released.
In July last year, an oil tanker sought by the US over reportedly circumventing sanctions on Iran was hijacked off the Emirati coast following months of tension between Iran and the US. The vessel and its crew ended up in Iran, although Tehran never acknowledged the incident.
“Ship owners should certainly be on their guard for further attacks in the next few days or weeks,” Mr Northwood said.
“It is likely that the coalition maritime forces will step up their patrols, which will make it more difficult for the Iranians to conduct similar attacks, but not impossible.”
AP and Reuters contributed to the report