A Japanese-owned tanker attacked in the Gulf of Oman last week was damaged by a limpet mine resembling those used by Iran, the US military said Wednesday, as the Islamic republic slammed accusations against it.
Commander Sean Kido of US Naval Forces Central Command, or NAVCENT, said the mine used in the attack “is distinguishable and it is also strikingly bearing a resemblance to Iranian mines that have already been publicly displayed in Iranian military parades”.
The Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous, loaded with highly flammable methanol, came under attack last Thursday as it passed through the Gulf of Oman along with the Norwegian-operated Front Altair.
It was the second attack in a month on ships in the strategic shipping lane.
Kido told reporters in the UAE emirate of Fujairah that the US military had recovered “biometric information” of the assailants on the Kokuka Courageous including “hand and finger prints”.
This information “can be used to build a criminal case”, Kido said as the US Navy took journalists on a tour to the damaged ship currently docked some 14 kilometres (nine miles) off Fujairah.
The explosion on the Japanese-owned tanker left a metre-wide (three-foot) hole on its body.
Members of the crew were on board when journalists arrived for the tour and they waved when they left.
– ‘Unsubstantiated’ –
Iran’s Defence Minister Brigadier-General Amir Hatami flatly rejected allegations the Islamic republic was behind the two tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman.
“Accusations levelled against Iran’s armed forces and the published film with regards to the incident (that) happened to the vessels… are unsubstantiated and we categorically reject these accusations,” the official news agency IRNA quoted him as saying on Wednesday.
Washington has already placed the blamed for last week’s attack on Tehran, releasing images and a grainy video it says shows Iranians on a patrol boat removing an unexploded limpit mine attached to the Kokuka Courageous.
The US commander Kido said there was an “ongoing joint and combined investigation with our regional partners into the attacks” on the two tankers.
Based on NAVCENT assessment, Kido said, the Kokuka Courageous was damaged by a limpet mine that had been attached to the hull of the vessel.
“The limpet mine was placed above the water, and it does not appear that the intention was to sink the vessel,” he said.
Evidence collected from Kokuka Courageous and showed to reporters included a black magnet that was allegedly left by members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps who removed the unexploded limpet mine.
The US navy also showed small fragments and composite material they recovered during the probe.
Kido reiterated US claims a Revolutionary Guard patrol vessel had approached the Japanese ship and removed an unexploded limpet mine from the hull.
The two vessels have already been towed safely to the UAE coast.
– Blame game –
Iran’s Hatami said forces from his country were among the first to approach the tankers “for relief operations and they rescued 23 people in the first tanker”.
He did not explicitly specify which of the two ships he was referring to, but Iran’s English-language Press TV at the time broadcast footage of 23 sailors rescued from the Front Altair.
Hatami said the Iranian forces then headed to the second tanker, but the crew said another vessel had already rescued them.
Kido said a US military team quickly arrived on the Japanese ship on June 13 and was able to examine the site where the limpet mine was attached to the ship as well as the site where the damage occurred.
“The damage at the blast hull is consistent with a limpet mine. It is not consistent with an external flying object striking the ship,” Kido said.
In addition, the team was able to recover fragmentation caused by the detonation of the limpet mine, which was composed of aluminium as well as composite material.
Tensions between Tehran and Washington have grown since the US last year unilaterally quit the multilateral 2015 nuclear deal and reimposed sweeping sanctions on Iran.
The US has since bolstered its military presence in the Middle East and blacklisted Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organisation.