Drone hits Israeli-linked tanker; Iran frees 2 Greek tankers

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This is a locator map for the Gulf Cooperation Council member states: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — An oil tanker associated with an Israeli billionaire has been struck by an Iranian bomb-carrying drone off the coast of Oman amid heightened tensions with Tehran, officials said Wednesday. Meanwhile, Greece said Iran freed two Greek oil tankers held by Tehran since May.

The drone attack on the Liberian-flagged oil tanker Pacific Zircon happened Tuesday night off the coast of Oman, the U.S. military’s Mideast-based Central Command said in a statement. It identified the drone used as an Iranian-made Shahed variant.

“This unmanned aerial vehicle attack against a civilian vessel in this critical maritime strait demonstrates, once again, the destabilizing nature of Iranian malign activity in the region,” said U.S. Army Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, the commander of Central Command.

The Pacific Zircon is operated by Singapore-based Eastern Pacific Shipping, which is a company ultimately owned by Israeli billionaire Idan Ofer.

In a statement, Eastern Pacific Shipping said the Pacific Zircon, carrying gas oil, had been “hit by a projectile” some 150 miles (240 kilometers) off the coast of Oman.

“We are in communication with the vessel and there is no reports of injuries or pollution. All crew are safe and accounted for,” the company said. “There is some minor damage to the vessel’s hull but no spillage of cargo or water ingress.”

An Israeli official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss unpublicized details of the attack, said that it appeared Iran carried out the attack with a triangle-shaped Shahed-136 exploding drone. Iran has supplied those drones to Russia, which has been using them to target infrastructure and civilian targets in Ukraine.

“It is an Iranian attack, there is a consensus on this in the Israeli intelligence and defense community,” the official said.

Iran’s government in Tehran did not acknowledge the attack on the Pacific Zircon. Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Pacific Zircon attack, but said it was “ready to meet with Ukraine” to investigate the drones used by Russia.

“Any accusation or action against Iran before this meeting isn’t acceptable and will be rejected,” it said. Eyewitness accounts, Western experts and Ukraine have identified the drones used in Ukraine as Iranian, which mirror those used in other Mideast attacks attributed to Iran.

The strike on the Pacific Zircon came hours after the U.S. Navy announced it found 70 tons of a missile fuel component hidden among bags of fertilizer aboard a ship bound to Yemen from Iran, a major seizure potentially disrupting the Iranian-backed Houthis’ ballistic missile program there.

Oil prices rose slightly as news of the attack spread, with benchmark Brent crude trading above $94 a barrel before dropping to around $92 early Thursday. Sanctions on Iran prevent it from openly trading its oil.

Meanwhile, Greek officials said two of Greek oil tankers — Delta Poseidon and Prudent Warrior — had been freed, along with their sailors.

Tracking data from MarineTraffic.com showed the vessels sailing away from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas where they had been held since May after being seized in a helicopter-born raid by Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.

Their seizure came after Greece assisted the United States in attempting to seize oil days earlier from the Iranian-flagged tanker Lana to enforce American sanctions.

“Today is a very pleasant day for our sailors, but also for Greece in general, since an unpleasant and particularly complex case came to an end, following systematic efforts by the Greek government,” Greek Shipping Minister Giannis Plakiotakis said in a statement.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry later acknowledged the release of the Greek tankers, saying that the ships and the Iranian vessel detained by Greece previously had all left for their destinations. Both Greek ships appeared to be heading to the United Arab Emirates.

While no one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack off the coast of Oman, suspicion immediately fell on Iran. Tehran and Israel have been engaged in a yearslong shadow war in the wider Middle East, with some drone attacks targeting Israeli-associated vessels traveling around the region.

The U.S. also blamed Iran for a series of attacks occurring off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in 2019. Tehran at the time had begun escalating its nuclear program following the unilateral U.S. withdraw from Iran’s atomic deal with world powers.

In 2021, a suspected Iranian drone strike hit the Israeli-associated oil tanker Mercer Street off Oman, killing two people onboard.

It wasn’t immediately clear where the vessel was Wednesday. Satellite-tracking data from late Tuesday provided by MarineTraffic.com put the vessel deep in the Arabian Sea after leaving the Omani port of Sohar.

Since the collapse of Iran’s nuclear deal, nonproliferation experts warn the Islamic Republic now has enough enriched uranium to make at least one nuclear weapon if it chose, though Tehran insists its program is peaceful.

Iran also has been lashing out at its perceived enemies abroad amid monthslong nationwide protests now challenging its theocracy.

Torbjorn Soltvedt, an analyst at the risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft, said the attack “does not come as a surprise.”

“The risk of attacks against shipping and energy infrastructure in the wider region is rising mainly due to the lack of progress in U.S.-Iranian nuclear diplomacy and the decision by the Washington to apply further sanctions pressure on Iran,” he said. “Since 2019, Iran has consistently responded to new U.S. sanctions with covert military action in the region.”

“There is not just an increasing risk of disruptive attacks against energy infrastructure in the region, but also a growing risk of a wider military confrontation with more serious consequences for world energy markets,” he added.

The oil tanker attack also comes comes just days ahead of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar. While Doha maintains good relations with Tehran, with whom it shares a massive natural offshore natural gas field, Israelis will be attending the tournament. Iran’s national team also will face Britain and the U.S. in first-round matches, two countries it accuses of fomenting the unrest in Iran.

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Associated Press writers Tia Goldenberg and Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem and Elena Becatoros in Athens, Greece, contributed to this report.

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Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jongambrellAP.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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