UK Reports Boarders Left and Tanker is Safe in the Gulf of Oman
The incident in the Gulf of Oman involving a Panama-flagged tanker ended as obliquely as it began with British authorities issuing a terse statement saying the unnamed vessel was safe and the incident was complete. Government intelligence operatives and security analysts were left to analyze the events in what was initially reported as an attempted hijacking.
The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) issued a brief statement saying simply that the boarders had left and that the vessel was safe. They continued to characterize it as a potential hijacking not an act of piracy while providing no additional details. They originally reported that they have been informed of the incident by an unidentified third party.
The Oman Maritime Security Center provided slightly more details in its briefing. They confirmed the identity of the vessel as the 9,748 dwt Asphalt Princess saying that they had received information that the vessel was the target of “a hijacking incident in international waters in the Gulf of Oman.” The Royal Navy of Oman reported that it dispatched “a number of ships,” to the area and that the Royal Air Force of Oman conducted overflights near the site.
WARNING 001/AUG/2021 Update 002— United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) (@UK_MTO) August 4, 2021
Category: Incident – Potential Hijack – Non Piracy
Description: Boarders have left the vessel. Vessel is safe. Incident completehttps://t.co/toURu6jSzg#MaritimeSecurity #marsec pic.twitter.com/IvC44GOiic
The vessel’s AIS data seems to confirm that it is again underway. The reported destination has now been amended to the port of Karachi, Pakistan, with the position of the vessel indicating it is in the Arabian Sea heading in a south-easterly direction. Yesterday, the AIS showed the vessel having departed the UAE and heading to Oman, although some media reports suggest it might have departed a port in Iran.
Security analysts Dryad International obtained an audio recording of the captain of the Asphalt Princess in which he is heard telling the UAE Coast Guard that the vessel has been boarded by possibly five or six armed individuals who he believes to be Iranian. He says his vessel is drifting and when asked what the boarders are demanding, he says he can not understand them and suggests the coast guard speak directly with the boarders.
Varying reports suggested that the tanker was directed toward Iran, but appears to largely have drifted in the Gulf of Oman before the boarders left the ship. There is no indication that anyone was harmed on the vessel or that any specific demands were made.
“It is assessed that the temporary detention of the Asphalt Princess was a calculated show of strength by the Iranian Navy,” writes Dryad in its analysis. They cite seven similar incidents in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman over the past two years.
In addition to the incidents with merchant ships, Iranian-backed forces also have a history of harassing naval vessels. Earlier this year in two different incidents Iranian vessels approached and cut across the bow of U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels while underway in the area. In one incident, the U.S. forces fired warning shots at the Iranian vessels.
Asked about the incident with the Asphalt Princess during its regular briefings, the U.S. State Department said it was reviewing the events while not singling out any group as being responsible. The spokesperson only referred to a pattern of very disturbing events attributed to Iran.
The UKMTO and other forces in the region continue to advise vessels to use extreme caution, but they believe this was an isolated and likely random event.