Damaged oil tanker may have hit a mine

Officials suspect a stray device left over from war could have caused blast to the M. Star as it passed through the Strait of Hormuz.

FUJAIRAH - JUY 29,2010 - M.Star vessel anchored in Fujairah Port after alleged collision in Strait of Humoz sea  in Oman . ( Paulo Vecina/The National )

FUJAIRAH // Officials said yesterday they suspected a stray mine or a collision damaged a Japanese oil tanker as it passed through the Strait of Hormuz. Investigators are examining the M. Star, moored about 13 nautical miles off the Port of Fujairah, whose crew reported an explosion around 4.30am on Wednesday. Its owner, Mitsui OSK Lines, said it was "highly likely" to have been caused by an outside attack, as some of the ship's 31 crew members saw a flash on the horizon immediately before the blast. Investigations by federal authorities, insurers and Mitsui OSK are expected to last two or three days. Damage to the ship was caused by a collision, said Capt Mousa Murad, the general manager of the Port of Fujairah.

"The cause of the collision is not clear from the dent in the ship," he said, declining to rule out the possibility that it was struck by a mine or in a targeted attack. Windows and doors were blown out at deck-level, far above the waterline where the ship was dented. "The accommodation has been damaged, from the deck until the control room, especially aluminium doors." There was internal flooding in the crew's quarters, but no water had entered from outside the ship, he said. There was one breach of the hull, a 60cm hole four metres above the waterline, under a lifeboat-storage station. There was no oil or other pollution spilling from the damaged vessel. Manoj Mathew, the ship's captain, said in a letter to Fujairah port's harbour master that "the vessel is completely stable and seaworthy and proceeding safely". The letter said the second officer suffered minor injuries, which were treated onboard.

The ship arrived in Fujairah around 6.40pm on Wednesday. It was carrying 270,000 tonnes of crude oil from Qatar to Japan. "What is certain is this is caused by an external force," said Ravi Gupta, a ship repair expert for Clarkson Technical Services in Fujairah. Mr Gupta discounted the possibility that there could have been a collision with another vessel. "This was definitely not a collision, as there is no scraping marks," he said. "Even if it was a submarine on the surface and the crew didn't see it, there would be scratch marks." The damage to the superstructure and deck looked as though it had been caused by a strong force of air pressure, he said.

Ajit Shenoi, a professor in ship science at Southampton University in Britain, said the shattered windows and internal damage could have been caused by shockwaves from a collision. But the external damage was inconsistent with this explanation, he added. "It looks as though an explosion in the air or water near the ship is the most likely cause," he said. "Looking at the image of the ship, you'd expect more abrasion on the plating if it was a collision with a submarine or another ship, and there's localised blackening on the red paint indicating an explosion." Mustafa Alani, a senior adviser on terrorism and security at the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai, said the damage to the ship's starboard, near the stern, appeared to match that of a floating mine. Although sea mines were designed to cause more damage, one that was 20 years old would have lost some of its potency, he said. "They tried to clear as many as possible, but there were many thousands put down during the Iran-Iraq war," Mr Alani said. "It's not a [rocket-propelled grenade]. The collapsed area, if it were an RPG, would be a round spot. There would be more blackness. It doesn't look like there was a direct impact point, which you would see with an RPG." The damage at the water level also indicated a mine, he added.

A UAE-based ship surveyor, who asked not to be named, said: "It's the kind of damage you might see from a ship hitting another ship, but it would have been hard for the crew to miss another ship, and anything that left an impact like that would have left scratch marks. "The damage is just above the water line, so it's something that's floating on the water. "It's definitely not an internal explosion. A missile or an RPG would have pierced the hull. It's probably a low-grade or old floating mine that has exploded some distance away from the ship." As a cheap and easy way of blocking sea access, mines were used extensively during the first Gulf War and the Iran-Iraq war. Minesweeping operations continue in the region. In 2008, HMS Chiddingfold, a British minesweeper, was called to the northern Gulf by the Kuwaiti and Iraqi governments to find and dispose of leftover mines for shipping routes to be opened. Most mines in the region are thought to have been disposed of, but a few areas are still classed as dangerous. Others discounted the theory that the ship hit a mine. Richard Skinner, the managing director of Orchid Maritime, a private security firm that specialises in maritime security, said there had probably been a collision. "If it was a mine or something in the water, it is not really consistent with an explosion from a device like that," he said.

It was unclear what type of vessel might have struck the tanker or what its fate might be. There have been collisions in the area in the past. In January 2007, a US Navy submarine collided with a Japanese oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz damaging its stern. Prof Shenoi said it was unlikely that the M Star would have failed to pick up another vessel, or a submarine on the surface, on its radar, or vice versa. The US Fifth Fleet said no American or coalition vessels had been operating in the area at the time. "The investigation into the cause is ongoing and we are keeping abreast of the situation," said Lt John Fage, a spokesman for the fleet. WAM, the state news agency, quoted Emirati and Omani officials who attributed the damage to a freak wave caused by a "tremor" on Wednesday night. However, according to the National Centre of Meteorology and Seismology, there was no unusual seismic activity around the time of the incident. Mitsui OSK said yesterday that, based on its investigation so far, wave damage was "highly unlikely". "It is clearly not a natural incident because no wave could cause that type of damage," Mr Skinner said. Mr Gupta agreed, saying: "As the damage is to the stern quarter of the ship, wave damage just to this location seems unlikely." * The National