DUBAI: A remotely piloted boat packed with explosives targeted the Saudi port of Yanbu in the Red Sea on Tuesday, the kingdom said, with the blast sending black smoke into the sky off the coast.

Saudi Arabia claimed to have intercepted and destroyed the attack boat. However, private security firms suggested commercial traffic near the port may have been hit in the assault.

Details remained scarce, but the incident comes after a series of attacks on shipping in the wider Mideast region amid a shadow war between Iran and Israel and against the backdrop of ongoing negotiations between Tehran and world powers over Iran’s tattered nuclear deal.

The incident also comes amid the kingdom’s yearslong war against Yemen’s Houthi rebels. The Houthis have in the past used bomb-laden drones and explosive-packed boats in attacks targeting the kingdom. However, the rebels did not immediately claim any assaults on Tuesday and did not respond to a request for comment.

The state-run Saudi Press Agency quoted Saudi military spokesman Col. Turki al-Maliki saying the port was targeted by the drone boat.

The booby-trapped boat was dealt and destroyed according to the rules of engagement, the report quoted al-Maliki as saying, without providing evidence to support his claim.

The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, run by the British navy, simply said it was aware of reports of an incident and that investigations were ongoing. Private maritime security firm Dryad Global said it had reports that a ship had been attacked,” without elaborating.

Maritime security firm Neptune P2P Group reported that black smoke was seen billowing near the south entrance of the Yanbu port.

British maritime security firm Ambrey reported an incident off western Saudi Arabia, between the ports of Yanbu and Rabigh.

Earlier Tuesday morning, smoke was seen rising from a vessel off the Saudi oil-shipping port of of Yanbu, the firm said. Multiple tankers remain anchored or drifting in the area.

Yanbu port control broadcast a message by marine VHF radio, warning vessels to increase their level of alertness and monitor for any suspicious activity, Ambrey said.

The US Navy’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet declined to immediately comment on the incident.

Yanbu, 870 kilometres (540 miles) west of Riyadh, serves as the end point of the kingdom’s crucial East-West Pipeline.

It allows crude oil pumped in its eastern fields to be shipped directly via the Red Sea, avoiding the Persian Gulf’s chokepoint at the Strait of Hormuz. Yanbu is also home to an oil refinery that can process 400,000 barrels of crude per day.

In May 2019, then-US National Security Adviser John Bolton claimed that Yanbu had been targeted in an attack never acknowledged by the kingdom.

Published in Dawn, April 28th, 2021

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