FUJAIRAH, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Two Saudi oil tankers and a Norwegian-flagged vessel were damaged in what Gulf officials described Monday as a “sabotage” attack off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. While details of the incident remain unclear, it raised risks for shippers in a region vital to global energy supplies at a time of increasing tensions between the U.S. and Iran over its unraveling nuclear deal with world powers.
The U.S. issued a new warning to sailors as the UAE’s regional allies condemned Sunday’s alleged attack that the UAE said targeted four ships off the coast of its port city of Fujairah.
It came just hours after Iranian and Lebanese media outlets aired false reports of explosions at the port.
Citing heightened tensions in the region, the United Nations called on “all concerned parties to exercise restraint for the sake of regional peace, including by ensuring maritime security” and freedom of navigation, U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said.
While Gulf officials declined to say who they suspect may be responsible, the U.S. has warned ships that “Iran or its proxies” could be targeting maritime traffic in the region. America is deploying an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf to counter alleged, still-unspecified threats from Tehran.
The scale of the alleged sabotage also remains unclear. A statement from Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said the kingdom’s two oil tankers, including one due to later carry crude to the U.S., sustained “significant damage.” However, a report from Sky News Arabia, a satellite channel owned by an Abu Dhabi ruling family member, showed the allegedly targeted Saudi tanker Al Marzoqah afloat without any apparent damage.
The MT Andrea Victory, another of the allegedly targeted ships, sustained a hole in its hull just above its waterline from “an unknown object,” its owner Thome Ship Management said in a statement. Images Monday of the Andrea Victory, which the company said was “not in any danger of sinking,” showed damage similar to what the firm described.
Emirati officials identified the third ship as the Saudi-flagged oil tanker Amjad. Ship-tracking data showed the vessel still anchored off Fujairah, apparently not in immediate distress. The fourth ship was the A. Michel, a bunkering tanker flagged in Sharjah, one of the UAE’s seven emirates.
A U.S. official told the Associated Press that American naval investigators were assisting the Emiratis with their probe of the incident. The official was not authorized to discuss details of the assistance publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, which patrols the Persian Gulf and wider region from its base in Bahrain, declined to comment on the incident. The Navy runs a small supply operation out of the nearby Emirati naval base in Fujairah.
Authorities in Fujairah, also a UAE emirate, also declined to speak to the AP. Emirati officials stopped AP journalists from traveling by boat to see the ships.
The incident raises questions about maritime security in the UAE, home to Dubai’s Jebel Ali port, the largest man-made deep-water harbor in the world that is also the U.S. Navy’s busiest port of call outside of America. From the coast, AP journalists saw an Emirati coast guard vessel patrolling near the area of one of the Saudi ships in Fujairah, some 130 miles northeast of Dubai on the Gulf of Oman.
Fujairah also is about 85 miles south of the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a third of all oil at sea is traded. The alleged sabotage caused jitters in global oil markets, as benchmark Brent crude rose in trading to over $71.50 a barrel Monday, a change of 1.3 percent.
Al-Falih, the Saudi energy minister, said the attacks on the two Saudi tankers happened at 6 a.m. Sunday. He said “the attack didn’t lead to any casualties or oil spill,” though he acknowledge it affected “the security of oil supplies to consumers all over the world.”
It is “the joint responsibility of the international community to protect the safety of maritime navigation and the security of oil tankers, to mitigate against the adverse consequences of such incidents on energy markets, and the danger they pose to the global economy,” he said, according to the statement carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency.
The U.S. Energy Department later said it was “monitoring the oil markets, and is confident they remain well-supplied.”
Shortly after the Saudi announcement, Iran’s Foreign Ministry called for further clarification about what exactly happened with the vessels. The ministry’ spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, was quoted by the official IRNA news agency as saying there should be more information about the incident.