Iran’s navy fires on, seizes foreign cargo ship; US dispatches warship
WASHINGTON — Iranian patrol boats in the Strait of Hormuz fired Tuesday on a cargo ship flying the flag of a U.S.-protected island nation and seized control of the vessel, the Pentagon said.
The Marshall Islands-flagged MV Maersk Tigris was transiting through the waterway when Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps vessels approached the ship and ordered the master to move deeper into Iranian territory. When the master refused, the Iranian boats fired warning shots across the ship’s bow, forcing the master to comply with their demands, according to Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren.
Iranian sailors subsequently boarded the vessel and the Maersk Tigris remains under Iranian control in Iranian waters, Warren said. The U.S. Navy Central Command dispatched the destroyer USS Farragut and reconnaissance aircraft to the area after the master sent a distress call.
There have been no reported injuries to the crew of the Maersk Tigris and no Americans are on board, according to the Pentagon. Warren said the ship had more than 30 crew members but was unable to provide their nationalities. The Associated Press quoted Iranian state television as saying only 24 crew were onboard the vessel, and hailed from Britain, Bulgaria, Romania and Myanmar. Iranian television said the ship was seized based on a court order due to unspecified violations. Iranian officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
Although the Maersk Tigris was in Iranian waters, it was sailing through an internationally recognized shipping lane in the Strait of Hormuz and thus enjoyed the right of “innocent passage,” Warren told reporters.
“Ships are, assuming that they abide by all the rules of the sea, are according to international standards authorized to pass through the strait,” he said. “This is a very heavily traveled shipping lane.”
Warren said it was “inappropriate” for the Iranians to have fired on the ship.
The Marshall Islands is an independent sovereign nation in the Pacific, but the U.S. is solely responsible for its defense. The U.S. seized control of the Marshall Islands from the Japanese during World War II.
Warren said the Pentagon was” looking into” what responsibilities the U.S. holds under agreements with the Marshall Islands but “we do have certain obligations with the Marshall Islands and we are working though that right now.”
Although it flew the Marshall Islands flag, the ship is owned by the Maersk Group, based in Copenhagen, Denmark. The company said the ship was chartered to Rickmers Ship Management of Hamburg, Germany. Maersk said it had no information about the crew or the cargo.
The Farragut is “moving now at best speed” toward the current location of the Maersk Tigris near Larak Island in the Persian Gulf, Warren said. No decision has been taken on how to respond when the Farragut reaches the scene.
“For the time being it will simply monitor” the situation, he said.
The strait is the route for about a fifth of the world's oil and is only about 21 miles wide at its narrowest point. In the past Iran has threatened to block the strait, a move that could spark a military conflict in the Persian Gulf. American and allied naval forces routinely patrol the waterway and have conducted military drills aimed at countering threats such as sea mines that Iran might use to close the strait.
Iran frequently conducts military exercises of its own in and around the strait. In 2007, Revolutionary Guard forces captured 15 British sailors and marines from a frigate in the Gulf, accusing them of operating in Iranian waters. They were released less than two weeks later.
On Friday, four Revolutionary Guard patrol craft approached a U.S.-flagged merchant ship, the MV Maersk Kensington, in an internationally-recognized maritime transit route near Oman, a U.S. Navy official said. At one point the Iranian vessels encircled the Maersk Kensington, but no shots were fired and the Iranians did not try to board, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The merchant ship did not request help and the Iranian vessels eventually withdrew, the official said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.