Thursday, April 30, 2015

Iran Seizes Marshall Islands-Flagged Cargo Ship

At the New York Times, "U.S. Sends Destroyer After Iran Detains Ship":

WASHINGTON — The United States Navy sent a destroyer toward the Persian Gulf on Tuesday after Iran took control of a Marshall Islands-flagged cargo ship it accused of trespassing in territorial waters, American military officials said.

The ship, the Maersk Tigris, with 24 crew members, was intercepted by Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps patrol boats on Tuesday morning while traveling through the Strait of Hormuz, a Pentagon official said. The Iranian forces fired shots across the ship’s bow, the official said, after its captain declined an order by the forces to divert farther into Iranian waters.

The official said the ship was traveling through “an internationally recognized maritime route.” After being fired on, it issued a distress call, prompting the United States Navy to direct a destroyer, the Farragut, to the area and to put aircraft on standby to monitor the situation.

The episode threatened fragile negotiations over reining in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but American officials were quick to play down its significance, correcting initial reports out of Iran that it had seized a United States ship. The Marshall Islands, in the Pacific, have been independent of the United States since 1986 but have a “free association” relationship with the country.

Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said the ship was traveling through Iranian territorial waters that are, by international agreement, open to foreign ships making an innocent passage. He said it was “inappropriate” for Iran to have fired warning shots, but he added that it was too early to know whether Iran’s intervention was a violation of international navigation freedom. Iran has in the past threatened to block the strait, a route for much of the world’s oil.

An American military official said Tuesday that the Farragut was about 60 miles away from the site of the episode, and that as of the afternoon there had been no communication between the United States Navy and Iran.

A Maersk spokesman said that the ship was a charter vessel, not a Maersk-crewed ship. A spokesman for the charter company, Rickmers Shipmanagement, said that the crew members were all Eastern European or Asian, and that the ship had been headed to a port near Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, from Jidda, Saudi Arabia. It was carrying general cargo, “anything from food to machinery to electronics,” he said.

The Rickmers spokesman, Cor Radings, said the captain had said that the ship did not stray into Iranian waters outside the international maritime route. “She was stopped by the Iranians and instructed to go to a rendezvous point in Iranian waters,” he said. “Since then we’ve lost contact with the ship.”