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Iran fires on, seizes cargo ship in Gulf, prompting U.S. Navy patrol

Carol J. Williams Los Angeles Times

An Iranian naval patrol fired warning shots across the bow of a Marshall Islands-flagged container ship Tuesday, forcing the vessel into an Iranian port where its crew members were detained, Middle East news agencies and the Pentagon reported.

The incident involving the MV Maersk Tigris prompted the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf region to dispatch the destroyer Farragut and an aircraft to monitor the situation, the Pentagon said.

Saudi Arabia’s Al-Arabia network said the ship was U.S.-owned, but that could not be immediately confirmed. The ship is managed by Rickmers Ship Management of Singapore, Bloomberg news agency reported.

No Americans were aboard the ship, U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren told reporters in Washington. There were 34 on board, Al-Arabiya reported, but other sources put the number of crew at 24.

Tensions between the Iranian and the U.S. navies have escalated in recent weeks during a standoff near the coast of Yemen that occurred when a U.S. naval flotilla steered away an Iranian convoy thought to be bringing supplies or armaments to Houthi rebels who have taken over the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, and driven the country’s president into exile.

Saudi Arabia, the Sunni Muslim powerhouse in the region, has accused Tehran of attempting to spread its influence to Yemen with support for the minority Houthis, who share the Iranians’ Shiite Muslim faith.

At nightfall in the region, the Maersk Tigris was reported by international ship tracking services to be at Bandar Abbas, on the north coast of the Strait of Hormuz, where it was diverted from its course for Jebel Ali in the United Arab Emirates.

The ship had set out from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and was traveling through the Strait of Hormuz, between the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, when it entered Iranian territorial waters, Warren said.

The Iranian vessel fired shots when the Maersk Tigris captain initially declined Iranian demands to halt and change direction, Warren said.

The ship was forced to dock at Bandar Abbas, Al-Arabiya said, and Iranian forces boarded the ship to detain its crew.

There was no official confirmation of the incident from Iranian officials. The semi-official Fars news agency, though, observed in a report cited to Al-Arabiya that the Iranian navy typically seizes vessels that “arrive illegally in Iran’s territorial waters.”

Fars, quoting what it said was a well-informed source, later added that the Iranian Ports and Maritime Organization had sought and received a court order authorizing seizure of the vessel. The news agency quoted the source as saying that the Marshall Islands “are ruled by the U.S.,” and that most of the seized ship’s crew were of European nationality, some likely with U.S. citizenship.

The Marshall Islands were once under U.S. administration, but have been independent since 1986. They retain close ties to the United States, however.

Warren said there were no injuries among the container ship’s crew as a result of the incident.

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