Blast-hit tankers to be assessed off UAE coast





DUBAI (Reuters) - The two oil tankers crippled in attacks in the Gulf of Oman last week that Washington and Riyadh have blamed on Iran are being assessed off the coast off the United Arab Emirates before their cargos are unloaded, the ships' operators said on Sunday.

Damage assessment on Japan's Kokuka Courageous and preparation for ship-to-ship transfer of its methanol cargo would start after authorities in Sharjah, one of the UAE's seven emirates, complete security checks, Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement said.

Thursday's attacks, which also hit Norwegian tanker Front Altair, have heightened tensions between Iran and the United States and its Gulf allies after similar blasts in May struck four ships, including two Saudi oil tankers, off the UAE.

In a show of military strength, the Royal Saudi Air Force flew in joint formation with U.S. F-15 fighter jets over the Gulf Arab region, Saudi state news agency SPA said on Sunday.

Foreign minister Jeremy Hunt said on Sunday Britain was "almost certain" Iran was behind attacks, adding that London did not believe anyone else could have done it.

Tehran has denied any involvement in the attacks near the Strait of Hormuz, a major transit route for global oil supplies.

The Front Altair is sitting off the coast of Sharjah's Khorfakkan port while the Kokuka Courageous is anchored closer to shore off the emirate's Kalba port, according to Refinitiv Eikon ship tracking data.

"Our crew remain on board the Kokuka Courageous. They are safe and well," Bernhard Schulte said in a statement.

The Kokuka Courageous's 21 crew members were returned to the vessel by the U.S. Navy's Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet after being rescued.

The crew of the Front Altair, who had been picked up by Iranian boats, departed Iran from Bandar Abbas airport to Dubai International Airport on Saturday, the ship's operator Frontline said.

A specialist team will inspect the Front Altair before deciding on how to unload its naphtha cargo. The ship is now being towed toward the offshore part of Fujairah emirate, the company said.


FINGER POINTED AT IRAN

It was not clear who would take part in assessing the tankers. After the May 12 attacks, in which a Norwegian-registered tanker was also hit, the UAE launched an investigation in cooperation with the United States, Saudi Arabia, Norway and France, which has a naval base in Abu Dhabi.

The UAE has said the probe shows that a state actor was behind last month's operation, without naming a country, and that naval mines were most likely used.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have directly blamed Iran for the attacks on the six vessels. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Saturday urged the international community to take a "decisive stand" but said Riyadh does not want a war.

The attacks have raised fears of broader confrontation in the region where the United States has boosted its military presence over perceived Iranian threats.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran heightened after the United States last year quit a 2015 international nuclear pact with Iran and re-imposed sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are locked in several proxy wars in the Middle East, including in Yemen where the Iran-aligned Houthi movement has claimed drone strikes on oil pumping stations in Saudi Arabia last month and a missile attack which hit a civilian airport in the south of the kingdom last week.


(Reporting by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Ghaida Ghantous, Keith Weir and Mark Potter)

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