Suspected attacks left two tankers in flames in the waters of the Gulf of Oman Thursday (June 13th), sending world oil prices soaring as Iran helped rescue stricken crew members.
The mystery incident, the second involving shipping in the strategic sea lane in only a few weeks, came amid spiraling tensions between Tehran and Washington, which has pointed the finger at Iran over earlier tanker attacks in May.
The Norwegian Maritime Authority said three explosions were reported Thursday on board the Norwegian-owned tanker Front Altair after it was "attacked" along with the Singapore-owned ship Kokuka Courageous.
Iran said its navy had rescued 44 crew members after the two vessels, which were carrying highly inflammable material, caught fire.
TV images showed huge, thick plumes of smoke and fire billowing from one of the tankers as it lay out to sea.
The US Fifth Fleet said its warships had received distress calls from both vessels in a "reported attack".
Iranian state media said the first incident occurred on board the Front Altair at 8:50 a.m., 25 nautical miles off Bandar-e-Jask in southern Iran.
The Marshall Islands-flagged tanker was carrying a cargo of ethanol from Qatar to Taiwan, official news agency IRNA reported.
"As the ship caught fire, 23 of the crew jumped into the water and were saved by a passing ship and handed over to the Iranian rescue unit," it said.
"An hour after the first accident, the second ship caught fire at 9:50 a.m., 28 nautical miles off the port," it added.
"I can confirm that the vessel has NOT sunk," Robert Hvide Macleo, chief executive for the ship's owner Frontline, wrote in a text message to AFP. No injuries were reported.
The Panama-flagged Kokuka Courageous was headed to Singapore from Saudi Arabia with a cargo of methanol, and 21 of its crew jumped and were rescued, IRNA said.
Singapore-based BSM Ship Management said it had "launched a full-scale emergency response" following the security incident.
It said the vessel was about 70 nautical miles from the UAE and just 14 from the coast of Iran.
The incident came as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was on an unprecedented visit to Iran, seeking to defuse tensions between Tokyo's ally Washington and the Islamic Republic.
Global oil prices gained around 4% immediately after the reports of the attacks. Benchmark Brent oil was trading at $61.74 a barrel, up about 3%.
Tensions run high
"Tension across the Middle East is high -- and the attacks on two tankers has further exacerbated the situation, even though there does not appear to have been any damage to the cargos," said John Hall, chairman of British-based consultancy Alfa Energy.
The European Union called for "maximum restraint" to avoid an escalation in the region.
"The world cannot afford a major confrontation in the Gulf," UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Thursday following the suspected attacks.
On May 12th, four oil tankers -- two Saudi, one Norwegian and one Emirati -- were damaged in still unexplained attacks in the Gulf of Oman off the UAE.
US National Security Advisor John Bolton said Iranian naval mines were "almost certainly" behind those attacks.
The UAE said last week that initial findings of a five-nation investigation delivered to the UN pointed to the likelihood that a state was behind the bombings, but added there was no evidence yet that Iran was involved.
The initial findings showed that it was "highly likely" that four Limpet mines, which are magnetically attached to a ship's hull, were used in the attacks, placed by trained divers who were deployed from fast boats.
Saudi King Salman earlier this month warned at a meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation that "terrorist" attacks in the Gulf region could imperil global oil supplies.
The world's top oil exporter has ratcheted up tensions with Iran after the sabotage attacks, which were followed by an attack on a key Saudi oil pipeline, which was claimed by Yemen's Houthis (Ansarallah).