DUBAI: The British navy warned on Tuesday of a potential hijack of a ship off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in the Gulf of Oman, without elaborating.

The incident comes amid heightened tensions between Iran and the West over its tattered nuclear deal and as commercial shipping in the region has found itself in the crosshairs over it. Most recently, the US, the UK and Israel have blamed Iran for a drone attack on an oil tanker off Oman that killed two people. Iran has denied being involved.

The British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations initially warned ships on Tuesday that an “incident is currently underway” off the coast of Fujairah. Hours later, they said the incident was a potential hijack. They did not elaborate.

The US military’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet and the British Defence Ministry did not immediately return calls for comment. The Emirati government did not immediately acknowledge the incident.

Earlier, six oil tankers announced around the same time via their Automatic Identification System trackers that they were not under command, according to MarineTraffic.com. That typically means a vessel has lost power and can no longer steer.

At the same time, if they are in the same vicinity and in the same place, then very rarely that happens, said Ranjith Raja, an oil and shipping expert with data firm Refintiv. Not all the vessels would lose their engines or their capability to steer at the same time.” One of the vessels later began moving.

An Oman Royal Air Force Airbus C-295MPA, a maritime patrol aircraft, flew in circles for hours over the area where the ships were, according to data from FlightRadar24.com.

Apparently responding to the incident, Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh as calling the recent maritime attacks in the region completely suspicious. He denied that Iran was involved.

“Iran’s naval forces are ready for help and rescue in the region, Khatibzadeh said.

The event comes just days after a drone struck an oil tanker linked to an Israeli billionaire off the coast of Oman, killing two crew members. The West blamed Iran for the attack, which marked the first known assault to have killed civilians in the yearslong shadow war targeting commercial vessels in the region.

Iran denied playing any role in the incident, though Tehran and its allied militias have used similar suicide drones in attacks previously.

Israel, the United States and United Kingdom vowed a collective response to the attack, without elaborating.

Published in Dawn, August 4th, 2021

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