The Iranian navy has boarded and briefly seized a Liberian-flagged oil tanker near the strategic Strait of Hormuz amid heightened tensions between Tehran and the US, an American military official said.
US Central Command published a black-and-white video showing what appeared to be special forces descending from a helicopter on to the MT Wila, whose last position appeared to be off the eastern coast of the UAE near the city of Khorfakkan.
The Iranian navy held the vessel for five hours before releasing it on Wednesday, said a US military source. The Wila made no distress calls before, during or after the seizure, the official said.
The Iranian helicopter involved appeared to be a Sikorsky SH-3 Sea King, which only Iran’s navy operates. The Iranian navy handles all operations in the Gulf of Oman on the eastern side of the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20% of all traded oil passes.
Two other Iranian naval vessels took part in the seizure, Central Command said.
The US military did not offer any reason for Iran seizing the vessel.
The Wila’s registered owner is a Liberian firm called Bandit Shipping, managed by Greek firm IMS SA, according to United Nations records.
The ship had been off Khor Al Zubair, Iraq, in early July before travelling to near Dubai and later Khorfakkan, where it has been for around a month, according to data firm Refinitiv.
Private maritime intelligence firm Dryad Global said it suspected two other ships had been harassed by Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard in the Persian Gulf over the last week as well, based on the ships’ behaviour.
As tensions between Iran and the US heated up last year over America’s unilateral withdrawal from its 2015 nuclear deal, tankers sailing in the Middle East became targets, particularly near the strait, the Persian Gulf’s narrow mouth.
Suspected limpet mine attacks the US blamed on Iran targeted several tankers. Iran denied being involved, though it did seize several tankers.
In July, a US-sought oil tanker was “hijacked” off the coast of the UAE after allegedly smuggling Iranian crude oil. The vessel later ended up back in Iranian waters, suggesting Iran seized the vessel.