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Conflicting reports add to tension in wake of Hormuz attacks

Amid heightened tension in the Middle East today there are conflicting reports on what happened to the Front Altair and Kokuka Courageous, two tankers that were attacked while transiting the Strait of Hormuz yesterday.

The United States military has released footage (see video below) which it claims shows an Iranian patrol boat removing a limpet mine from the Kokuka Courageous yesterday evening. However, both Iran and the ship’s owner have questioned the footage. Iran claims the US and others in the Middle East are trying to destabilise the region, while the Japanese shipowner Kokuka Sangyo says crew onboard its chemical tanker saw “flying objects” just before the attack, suggesting the tanker wasn’t damaged by mines.

The Japanese tanker carrying petroleum products to Singapore and Thailand was attacked twice while travelling near the Strait of Hormuz on Thursday morning, damaging the tanker and forcing all 21 crewmembers to evacuate.

Kokuka Sangyo’s president Yutaka Katada said Friday he believes the flying objects seen by the sailors could be bullets, saying mines or torpedoes were unlikely because the damages were above the ship’s waterline. He called reports of a mine attack “false”. Yesterday Katada had suggested his ship had been hit by shells.

Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (BSM), technical manager for the Kokuka Courageous, reported today that the ship is now safely under tow in the Gulf of Oman heading towards Khorfakkan with the crew back onboard and power restored to the damaged ship.

“The Kokuka Courageous is stable. Full damage assessments will be carried out, but there is no danger of her sinking and there is no loss of cargo or fuel containment,” BSM stated today.

One crewman from the Kokuka Courageous was slightly injured in the incident and has received first aid treatment. He is now back onboard the vessel.

Meanwhile, V. Group, which manages the Front Altair, belonging to John Fredriksen’s Frontline, said yesterday they working on plans to salvage the vessel. The LR2 Front Altair suffered far more damage from yesterday’s attacks judging by video footage seen by Splash. The fire was eventually doused late yesterday by tugs attending to the scene.

In a report published yesterday, UK maritime security consultants Dryad Maritime added to the confusion surrounding the attacks, stating: “ Both vessels appear to have indicated that they believe the attack originated from the surface, however further reports from the Front Altair indicate that the hull was breached on the starboard side partially below the waterline.”

The master of the Hyundai Dubai general cargo ship, which came to rescue the crew of the Front Altair, said yesterday that the Frontline tanker had been hit by torpedoes.

BIMCO’s head of maritime security, Jakob Larsen, warned Thursday that the key energy waterway, Hormuz, was now close to war conditions.

“The increase in attacks and the escalated threat to seafarers is an urgent concern to the industry. Following the two most recent attacks, and while we await the results of the investigations of the attacks, the tension in the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf is now as high as it gets without being an actual armed conflict,” Larsen said.

Shipowners around the world are now facing up to the implications of the detioriating security situation around the Strait of Hormuz, where one third of the world’s oil moves via ship. Additional premiums for vessels heading to the Persian Gulf are on the rise today, the Hellenic War Risks Club, an insurer, said in a notice on its website. Meanwhile, a host of shipowners are avoiding the region entirely. Newswire Reuters reported both DHT Holdings and Heidmar have stopped taking charters to the Middle East Gulf for the time being, while a number of Asian shipping companies, including giants like Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK), are also thought to be taking similar avoidance tactics.


Sam Chambers

Starting out with the Informa Group in 2000 in Hong Kong, Sam Chambers became editor of Maritime Asia magazine as well as East Asia Editor for the world’s oldest newspaper, Lloyd’s List. In 2005 he pursued a freelance career and wrote for a variety of titles including taking on the role of Asia Editor at Seatrade magazine and China correspondent for Supply Chain Asia. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Sunday Times and The International Herald Tribune.
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