A short video released late Thursday night by U.S. Central Command shows the crew of an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps patrol boat removing an unexploded limpet mine from a tanker that sustained damage in a suspected attack earlier in the day, officials said.
The M/T Kokuka Courageous, a Panama-flagged oil tanker, was one of two civilian vessels targeted near the Strait of Hormuz in the incident; the other was the MT Front Altair, a Marshall Islands-flagged tanker. U.S. Navy assets including the guided-missile destroyer Bainbridge responded, rescuing 21 merchant mariners. Though the events that left the Front Altair burning and the Kokuka with hull damage were not immediately clear early in the day, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hours later blamed the “unprovoked attacks” on Iran, saying they were the latest in a series of “provocative actions” by the rogue state.
CENTCOM’s detailed statement Thursday night sketches a timeline of events, beginning with the two separate distress calls the Navy received in the early morning from the tankers.
The Bainbridge, only about 40 nautical miles away from the Altair when the attack took place, immediately headed to its location. The Kokuka was about 10 nautical miles farther away.
At around 8:09 a.m., roughly an hour after the second distress call and two hours after the first, “a U.S. aircraft observed an [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] Hendjian class patrol boat and multiple IRGC fast attack craft/fast inshore attack craft in the vicinity of the M/T Altair,” Capt. Bill Urban, CENTCOM spokesman, said in a statement.
A U.S. aircraft spotted the Iranian vessels pulling a raft adrift from the Altair out of the water around 9:12 a.m., the statement added. A quarter of an hour later, Urban said, the Iranians requested that the cargo vessel Hyundai Dubai, which initially picked up the crew members of the distressed tanker, turn the mariners over to them. The Hyundai Dubai complied.
Iranian news agency IRNA claimed 44 mariners were saved by Iranian search-and-rescue assets.
Iran’s mission to the United Nations has “categorically” denied responsibility for the attack on the two vessels, the Associated Press reported.
Around 11:05 a.m., according to CENTCOM, the Bainbridge approached Dutch tugboat Coastal Ace, which had taken aboard all 21 mariners from the Kokuka Courageous. The tanker’s crew had abandoned ship “after discovering a probable unexploded limpet mine on their hull following an initial explosion,” according to the statement.
Though the IRGC Hendijan-class patrol boat appeared to reach Coastal Ace before the Navy destroyer did, the master of the Kokuka requested rescue by the Bainbridge, according to the statement. The 21 sailors remain aboard the destroyer.
It was roughly five hours later, officials say, when an IRGC Gashti-class patrol boat returned to the scene, “and was observed and recorded removing the unexploded limpet mine from the M/T Kokuka Courageous.”
Roughly one minute, 40 seconds of grainy video, released by CENTCOM, show the patrol boat pulled close against the side of the tanker as the crew appears to remove an object. Two clear, annotated photos also released by CENTCOM show the starboard side of the Kokuka, with hull damage aft, above the water line, and what is labeled as a “likely mine” to the fore.
Limpet mines, naval mines that can magnetically attach to the hull of the ship, have also been used in other recent attacks attributed to Iran.
“The U.S. and our partners in the region will take all necessary measures to defend ourselves and our interests. Today's attacks are a clear threat to international freedom of navigation and freedom of commerce,” Urban said in the statement. “The United States has no interest in engaging in a new conflict in the Middle East. However, we will defend our interests.”
The apparent attacks and response come amid rising tensions between the United States and Iran. The U.S. sped the carrier Abraham Lincoln to the region ahead of schedule in late May in a show of force in response to unspecified threats to U.S. forces.
Meanwhile, as U.S. lawmakers debate the fiscal 2020 defense budget bill in Washington, some introduced measures that would prohibit war with Iran without a vote from Congress.
Democratic Reps. Ro Khanna of California, Anthony Brown of Maryland, John Garamendi of California and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts released a statement after introducing and then withdrawing an amendment that would require congressional authorization for war. They were assured, they said, that a similar measure would be introduced when the bill goes to the House floor for consideration.
“The Trump administration cannot set us down the path to war with Iran without Congressional approval, no matter how many specious arguments they make about previous and unrelated authorizations,” Brown said in the statement. “We will continue our work to prevent President Trump from launching an unconstitutional or unauthorized war, and I’m proud to partner with my colleagues to reassert Congress’ constitutional authority.”
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan took to Twitter to praise the crew of the Bainbridge and denounce Iran’s “continued unprovoked attacks.”
He did not hint at a specific military response to Thursday’s events, however.
“While we do not seek conflict, the @DeptofDefense will defend our forces and our interests around the world. We will safeguard global commerce and defense freedom of navigation,” he wrote.
-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.