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Tanker owner seems to dispute U.S. account of Gulf of Oman attack

Political impact of tanker attacks

The Japanese owner of the Kokuka Courageous, one of two oil tankers targeted near the Strait of Hormuz, said Friday that sailors on board saw "flying objects" just before it was hit, suggesting the vessel wasn't damaged by mines.

That account contradicts what the U.S. military said as it released a video Friday it said shows Iranian forces removing an unexploded limpet mine from one of the two ships that were hit.

The Japanese tanker was attacked twice Thursday, damaging the vessel and forcing all 21 crew members to evacuate.

Company president Yutaka Katada said Friday he believes the flying objects seen by the sailors could have been bullets. He denied any possibility of mines or torpedoes because the damage was above the ship's waterline. He called reports of a mine attack "false."

Katada said the crew members also spotted an Iranian naval ship nearby, but didn't specify whether that was before or after the attacks.

The tanker survived the first attack, which hit near the engine room and was followed by another, damaging the starboard side toward the back.

The U.S. military's Central Command said the video it released shows Iran's Revolutionary Guard removing an unexploded limpet mine from one of the tankers, suggesting Tehran sought to remove evidence of its involvement from the scene. Iran denies being involved and accuses the U.S. of waging an "Iranophobic campaign" against it.

The U.S. Navy rushed to assist the stricken vessels in the Gulf of Oman, off the coast of Iran, including one that was set ablaze Thursday by an explosion.

The operators of the Norwegian-owned MT Front Altair offered no immediate explanation of what happened to their vessel.

Both tankers were loaded with petroleum products, and the Front Altair burned for hours, sending up a column of thick, black smoke.

Iran has previously used mines against oil tankers in 1987 and 1988 in the "Tanker War," when the U.S. Navy escorted ships through the region.

The black-and-white video, as well as still photographs the U.S. military released, appeared to show the limpet mine on the Kokuka Courageous.

A Revolutionary Guard patrol boat pulled alongside the ship and removed the mine, Central Command spokesman Capt. Bill Urban said.

"The U.S. and the international community stand ready to defend our interests, including the freedom of navigation," Urban said. "The United States has no interest in engaging in a new conflict in the Middle East. However, we will defend our interests."

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani assailed the Trump administration Friday, accusing it of radicalizing the situation in the Mideast and pursuing an aggressive policy against his country. Rouhani spoke at a regional summit in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek. 

He made no mention of the tankers but lashed out at Washington for walking out of Iran's nuclear deal with world powers and re-imposing sanctions on Tehran.

Tehran earlier denied involvement via a statement from its mission to the United Nations.

"The U.S. economic war and terrorism against the Iranian people as well as its massive military presence in the region have been and continue to be the main sources of insecurity and instability in the wider Persian Gulf region and the most significant threat to its peace and security," the statement said.

The suspected attacks occurred at dawn Thursday about 25 miles off the southern coast of Iran. The Front Altair, loaded with the flammable hydrocarbon mixture naphtha from the United Arab Emirates, radioed for help as it caught fire. A short time later, the Kokuka Courageous, loaded with methanol from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, also called for help.

The U.S. Navy sent a destroyer, the USS Bainbridge, to assist, said Cmdr. Joshua Frey, a 5th Fleet spokesman. He described the ships as being hit in a "reported attack," without elaborating. The U.S. military said the Bainbridge picked up the Kokuka Courageous' 21 sailors, who had abandoned ship.

Iran said Friday the fires on both ships had been contained.

Thursday's attacks drove up oil prices on world markets and fanned fears of a new U.S.-Iran confrontation.

The attacks resembled one in May targeting four oil tankers off the nearby Emirati port of Fujairah. U.S. officials similarly accused Iran of targeting the ships with limpet mines, which are magnetic and can be attached manually to the hulls of a ship. The mines disable, but don't sink, a vessel.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told journalists Thursday that the U.S. assessment of Iran's involvement was based in part on intelligence, as well as the expertise needed for the operation. It was also based on recent incidents in the region, which the U.S. also blamed on Iran, including the use of limpet mines in the Fujairah attack, he said. He also tied Iran to a drone attack by Yemen's Iranian-backed Houthi rebels on a crucial Saudi oil pipeline around the same time.

"Taken as a whole, these unprovoked attacks present a clear threat to international peace and security, a blatant assault on the freedom of navigation and an unacceptable campaign of escalating tension by Iran," Pompeo said. He didn't elaborate and took no questions.

Iran denied being involved in last month's attacks, and its foreign minister questioned the timing of Thursday's incidents, given that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was meeting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran.

Pompeo noted that Abe had asked Iran to enter into talks with Washington but Tehran "rejected" the overture.

"The supreme leader's government then insulted Japan by attacking a Japanese-owned oil tanker just outside Iranian waters, threatening the lives of the entire crew, creating a maritime emergency," Pompeo added.

At the United Nations, the Security Council held closed consultations on the tanker incidents late Thursday at the request of the United States but took no action.

Tensions have escalated in the Mideast as Iran appears poised to break the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, an accord President Trump repudiated last year. In the deal, Tehran agreed to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of crippling sanctions. Now, Iran is threatening to resume enriching uranium closer to weapons-grade levels if European nations don't offer it new terms to the deal by July 7.

Already, Iran says it has quadrupled its production of low-enriched uranium. Meanwhile, U.S. sanctions have cut off opportunities for Iran to trade its excess uranium and heavy water abroad, putting Tehran on course to violate terms of the nuclear deal regardless.

Separately, Saudi Arabia said early Friday its military intercepted five drones launched by Yemen's Houthi rebels targeting the kingdom, including the Abha regional airport. The kingdom said a similar attack Wednesday on the Abha airport wounded 26 people.