The U.S. Navy is assisting an Israeli-managed petroleum products tanker that was fatally attacked on Thursday off the coast of Oman, the U.S. military said on Saturday, adding the ship was most likely hit by a drone strike.
The Mercer Street, a Liberian-flagged, Japanese-owned vessel, is currently being escorted by the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, the U.S. Central Command said in a statement.
“U.S. Navy explosives experts are aboard to ensure there is no additional danger to the crew, and are prepared to support an investigation into the attack,” said the Central Command, which oversees American military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia.
“Initial indications clearly point to a UAV-style [drone] attack,” it added.
Israel’s foreign minister blamed Iran on Friday for the attack, which killed two crewmen, a British and a Romanian.
U.S. and European sources familiar with intelligence reporting said on Friday Iran was their leading suspect for the incident, which a U.S. defense official said appeared to have been carried out by a drone, but stressed their governments were seeking conclusive evidence.
Al Alam channel, the Iranian government’s Arabic-language news network, cited unnamed sources as saying the attack on the ship came in response to a suspected, unspecified Israeli attack on Dabaa Airport in Syria.
There was no immediate official reaction from Iran to the accusation that it may have been responsible.
The vessel is managed by Israeli-owned Zodiac Maritime. The company said on Friday the vessel was sailing under the control of its crew and own power to a safe location with a U.S. naval escort.
Iran and Israel have traded accusations of attacking each other’s vessels in recent months.
Tensions have risen in the Gulf region since the United States re-imposed sanctions on Iran in 2018 after then-President Donald Trump withdrew Washington from Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with major powers.
The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO), which provides maritime security information, said vessel was about 152 nautical miles (280 km) northeast of the Omani port of Duqm when it was attacked.
According to Refinitiv ship tracking, the medium-size tanker was headed for Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates, from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.