Security

Explosion rocks Singapore-flagged tanker off Saudi port

By AFP and Al-Mashareq

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This picture taken on November 24th shows a view of the Saudi Aramco oil facility in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, a day after the Houthis launched a missile attack on the facility, triggering an explosion and a fire in a fuel tank. [Fayez Nureldine/AFP]

An explosion rocked a Singapore-flagged oil tanker off the Saudi port city of Jeddah on Monday (December 14th), the vessel's owner said, in the latest apparent strike on energy sector targets in the kingdom.

All 22 sailors aboard the tanker BW Rhine escaped unhurt after the blast struck just after midnight, Singapore-based shipping company Hafnia said, but it did not exclude the possibility of an oil spill.

No group has so far claimed responsibility for the alleged attack, but it comes as Iran-backed Houthis (Ansarallah) in neighbouring Yemen step up cross-border strikes against Saudi targets.

"BW Rhine has been hit from an external source whilst discharging at Jeddah... causing an explosion and subsequent fire onboard," Hafnia said in a statement, without specifying what struck the vessel.

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Members of a US mine-hunting unit stand aboard Britain's RFA Cardigan Bay landing ship in the Gulf waters off Bahrain during the International Maritime Exercise on November 5th, 2019. [Karim Sahib/AFP]

"The crew have extinguished the fire with assistance from the shore fire brigade and tug boats, and all 22 seafarers have been accounted for with no injuries," it added.

Saudi authorities did not immediately confirm the blast off Jeddah, a key Red Sea port and distribution centre for oil giant Saudi Aramco. Later in the day, an official spokesman at the Ministry of Energy said that the ship was attacked by an explosive-laden boat in the early hours of the morning.

Hafnia reported "hull damage" in the blast.

"It is possible that some oil has escaped from the vessel, but this has not been confirmed and instrumentation currently indicates that oil levels on board are at the same level as before the incident," Hafnia said.

Possible link to Iran

Dryad Global, a London-based maritime intelligence firm, also reported the explosion, saying it struck a vessel while "carrying out operations within the main tanker anchorage at the Saudi Aramco Jeddah port".

But it identified the Dominican-flagged tanker Desert Rose or the Saudi-flagged Al Amal Al Saudi as the possible targets.

"Incidents within the Red Sea have previously occurred however remain uncommon," Dryad Global said.

"Notably these have involved the targeting of the Saudi flagged vessels in transit by [Houthis] in the vicinity of the Hanish islands."

The latest incident remains unclear, it said, noting that the presence of the Houthis offshore, to the north of their usual area of operations, "would represent a fundamental shift in both targeting capabilities and intent".

"If indeed the vessel has been targeted by an explosive device it remains a realistic possibility that the vessel was targeted via the presence of limpet mines, similar to that seen deployed by Iranian forces within the Gulf of Oman in 2019," it said.

The UK Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) confirmed a tanker had experienced an explosion while carrying out operations and said there were unconfirmed reports of a second vessel being involved in an incident.

Investigations are ongoing, UKMTO added, warning vessels in the area to exercise "extreme caution".

The port of Jeddah has been closed for an unspecified amount of time, Dryad Global and UKMTO reported.

Series of attacks

The incident comes after an explosion last month rocked a Greek-operated oil tanker docked at Saudi Arabia's southern port of al-Shuqaiq, an attack the Arab coalition blamed on the Houthis.

No injuries were reported in that blast on the Maltese-flagged Agrari tanker, according to its Greece-based operator TMS Tankers.

Dryad Global said that blast was caused by a "water-borne improvised explosive device" launched by the Houthis.

Just days earlier, the Houthis said they struck a plant operated by Saudi Aramco in Jeddah with a Quds-2 missile. Aramco said that strike tore a hole in an oil tank, triggering an explosion and fire.

Saudi Arabia has been targeted with dozens of ballistic missile and drone attacks since the start of last year, many of which the kingdom has successfully intercepted.

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