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US Warships Escort Oil Tanker Attacked in Indian Ocean

Aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) responds to a call for assistance from the Mercer Street, a Japanese-owned Liberian-flagged tanker managed by Israeli-owned Zodiac Maritime, in the Arabian Sea, July 30, 2021.

The U.S. Navy said Saturday two American warships were escorting an Israeli-operated oil tanker to a safe port after it was attacked Thursday off the coast of Oman, killing two crew members.

The tanker, the Mercer Street, is a Liberian-flagged, Japanese-owned vessel, managed by Zodiac Maritime.

The U.S. Central Command said in a statement that American navy explosives experts are aboard the tanker to ensure the safety of the crew. The command also said the U.S. Navy is “prepared to support an investigation into the attack,” which it said may have been a drone attack.

“Initial indications clearly point to a UAV-style [drone] attack,” the command said.

Though no one has yet claimed responsibility, Israel’s foreign minister Friday accused Iran of launching the drone strike. Iran has not responded to Israel’s allegation.

The company did not provide details about the attack, saying only that the incident was being investigated.

In recent months, attacks on several ships with Israeli connections have been blamed on Iran by the U.S. and Israel.

Israel also has been accused of attacking Iranian nuclear facilities and military posts in Syria.

Tensions between Israel and Iran have escalated recently as the U.S. has sought to restore the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, a move that Israel opposes. The original deal forced Iran to significantly scale back its nuclear program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and other world powers.

Former President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018, however, citing what he said was its apparent ineffectiveness, causing Iran to ramp up its nuclear programs the following year.

The tanker was traveling through the northern Indian Ocean with no cargo on board when the attack occurred off the coast of Oman, Zodiac said. The company’s most recent statement said that the ship is now sailing to a “safe location with a U.S. naval escort.”

Zodiac Maritime is led by Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer, whose net worth is estimated by Forbes to be $11.4 billion. His shipping firm owns and operates more than 160 ships.

Information from The Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.