British navy group: Hijackers have left vessel off UAE coast

Persian Gulf Tensions

FUJAIRAH, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The hijackers who captured a vessel off the United Arab Emirates in the Gulf of Oman left the ship Wednesday, the British navy reported, as radio traffic appeared to reveal a crew member onboard saying Iranian gunmen had stormed the asphalt tanker.

The incident — described by the British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations the night before as a “potential hijack" — revived fears of an escalation in Mideast waters and ended with as much mystery as it began.

Hints of what unfolded on the Panama-flagged Asphalt Princess emerged with a maritime radio recording obtained by commodities pricing firm Argus Media and shared with The Associated Press. In the audio, a crew member can be heard telling the Emirati coast guard that five or six armed Iranians had boarded the tanker.

“Iranian people are onboard with ammunition,” the crew member says. “We are … now, drifting. We cannot tell you exact our ETA to (get to) Sohar,” the port in Oman listed on the vessel’s tracker as its destination. It was not clear whether the crew members, whom he identified as Indian and Indonesian, were in danger at the time of the recording.

No one took responsibility for the brief seizure, which underscored mounting tensions as Iran and the United States seek a resolution to their standoff over Tehran's tattered 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

In an apparent response, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh on Tuesday denied that Iran played any role. He described the recent maritime attacks in the Persian Gulf as “completely suspicious.”

The rising tensions have played out in the waters of the Persian Gulf, where just last week a drone attack on an oil tanker linked to an Israeli billionaire off the coast of Oman killed two crew members. The West blamed Iran for the raid, which marked the first known fatal assault in the shadow war targeting vessels in Mideast waters. Iran denied involvement.

Late on Tuesday, the intruders boarded the Asphalt Princess sailing off the coast of Fujairah, authorities said. The official news agency of Oman’s military said it received reports that the Asphalt Princess had been hijacked and immediately dispatched Royal Air Force maritime patrol aircraft and naval vessels “to contribute to securing international waters.”

In the recorded radio traffic, when the Emirati coast guard asks the crew member what the Iranian gunmen were doing onboard, he says he “cannot understand the (Iranians),” his voice muffled, before trying to hand over the radio to someone else. The call then cuts off.

Speaking from Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price said that American officials also “believe that these personnel were Iranian, but we’re not in a position to confirm this at this time.”

Possible signs of trouble began to emerge that evening when six oil tankers off the coast of Fujairah 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.

Satellite-tracking data had showed the Asphalt Princess gradually heading toward Iranian waters off the port of Jask early Wednesday, according to MarineTraffic.com. Hours later, however, it stopped and changed course toward Oman, just before the British navy group declared the hijackers had departed and the vessel was “safe.”

In an analysis, maritim