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Biggest ship in Iran's navy catches fire and sinks under unclear circumstances, semiofficial Iranian news agencies say

Tehran, Iran — The largest warship in the Iranian navy caught fire and later sank Wednesday in the Gulf of Oman under unclear circumstances, semiofficial news agencies reported.

The Fars and Tasnim news agencies said efforts failed to save the 679-foot support ship Kharg, named after the island that serves as the main oil terminal for Iran.

The Reuters news agency reported that the entire crew was able to safely disembark. Reuters cited Fars, which quoted a navy statement. The statement said the Kharg was on a training mission.  

The blaze began around 2:25 a.m. and firefighters tried to contain it, state TV said. The vessel sank near the Iranian port of Jask, some 790 miles southeast of Tehran in the Gulf of Oman and near the Strait of Hormuz - the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf.

Agence France-Presse reported that the navy said firefighting efforts went on for 20 hours before the ship went down.

Smoke rises from Iran navy's largest ship in Jask port in the Gulf
Smoke rises from Iran navy's largest ship in Jask port in the Gulf, Iran, June 2, 2021.  WANA NEWS AGENCY via Reuters

Photos circulated on Iranian social media of sailors wearing life jackets evacuating the vessel as a fire burned behind them.

Fars published video of thick, black smoke rising from the ship early Wednesday morning.

Satellite photos from Planet Labs Inc. analyzed by The Associated Press showed the Kharg off to the west of Jask on Tuesday. Satellites from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that track fires from space detected a blaze at the site of the Jask that started just before the time of the fire reported by Fars. 

The Kharg serves as one of a few vessels in the Iranian navy capable of providing replenishment at sea for its other ships. It also can lift heavy cargo and serve as a launch point for helicopters.

Islamic Republic of Iran Navy ship 'Kharg' visits Indonesia
Iranian navy support ship Kharg at the Tanjung Priok port in Jakarta, Indonesia on February 27, 2020.  Anton Raharjo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The ship, built in Britain and launched in 1977, entered the Iranian navy in 1984 after lengthy negotiations that followed Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Iran's navy typically handles patrols in the Gulf of Oman and the wider seas, while the country's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard operates in the shallower waters of the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf. In recent months, however, the navy launched a slightly larger commercial tanker called the Makran it converted to serve a similar function as the Kharg. 

Iranian officials offered no cause for the fire aboard the Kharg. However, it comes after a series of mysterious explosions that began in 2019 targeting ships in the Gulf of Oman. The U.S. Navy later accused Iran of targeting the ships with limpet mines, timed explosives typically attached by divers to a vessel's hull.

Iran denied targeting the vessels, though U.S. Navy footage showed members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard removing one unexploded limpet mine from a vessel.

The incidents came amid heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran after then-President Trump unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers.

In April, an Iranian ship called the MV Saviz believed to be a Guard base and anchored for years in the Red Sea off Yemen was targeted in an attack suspected to have been carried out by Israel. It escalated a years-long shadow war in Mideast waters between the two countries. 

The sinking of the Kharg marks the latest naval disaster for Iran. In 2020 during an Iranian military training exercise, a missile mistakenly struck a naval vessel near the port of Jask, killing19 sailors and wounding 15. Also in 2018, an Iranian navy destroyer sank in the Caspian Sea.

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