Oil prices jump after attacks on tankers

Tensions rise in Middle East as two ships go up in flames off Oman

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Image: Handout / DEPARTMENT OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND TRADE / AFP

Suspected attacks left two tankers in flames in the waters of the Gulf of Oman on Thursday, sending world oil prices soaring as Iran helped rescue stricken crew members.

The mystery incident, the second involving shipping in the strategic sea lane in only a few weeks, came amid spiralling tensions between Tehran and Washington, which have pointed the finger at Iran over earlier tanker attacks in May.

The Norwegian Maritime Authority said three explosions had been reported on board the Norwegian-owned tanker Front Altair on Thursday after it was “attacked” along with the Singapore-owned ship Kokuka Courageous.

Iran said its navy had rescued 44 crew members after the two vessels, which were carrying highly inflammable material, caught fire.

Television images showed huge, thick plumes of smoke and fire billowing from one of the tankers as it lay out to sea.

Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif spoke of “reported attacks” as Japan’s prime minister held talks in Tehran.

The US Fifth Fleet said its warships had received distress calls from both vessels in a reported attack.

Iranian state media said the first incident had occurred on board the Front Altair 25 nautical miles off Bandar-e-Jask in southern Iran. The Marshall Islands-flagged tanker had been carrying a cargo of ethanol from Qatar to Taiwan, official news agency IRNA reported.

It is a 111,000-ton vessel. “As the ship caught fire, 23 of the crew jumped into the water and were saved by a passing ship and handed over to the Iranian rescue unit.

“An hour after the first incident, the second ship caught fire 28 nautical miles off the port,” the agency said. No injuries were reported.

The Panama-flagged Kokuka Courageous had been headed to Singapore from Saudi Arabia with a cargo of methanol, IRNA said.

Singapore-based BSM Ship Management said it had “launched a full-scale emergency response following a security incident” involving the Kokuka Courageous, which is owned by Japanese company Kokuka Sangyo Ltd.

“The 21 crew of the vessel abandoned ship after the incident on board which resulted in damage to the ship’s hull starboard side,” it said.

“One crewman from the Kokuka Courageous was slightly injured in the incident and is receiving first aid.”

It said the vessel was about 70 nautical miles from the United Arab Emirates and just 14 from the coast of Iran.

The incident came as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was on an unprecedented visit to Iran, seeking to defuse tensions between Toyko’s ally Washington and the Islamic Republic.

Tehran said it had dispatched a helicopter from the port of Bandar-e-Jask to the ships’ location for further investigation.

The US Fifth Fleet said: “We are aware of the reported attack on tankers in the Gulf of Oman.

“US naval forces in the region received two separate distress calls.”

World oil prices spiked after a merchant shipping information service run by Britain’s Royal Navy reported an incident in the Gulf of Oman.

“Tension across the Middle East is high – and the attacks on two tankers have further exacerbated the situation, even though there does not appear to have been any damage to the cargos,” John Hall, chair of British-based consultancy Alfa Energy, said.

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