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story.lead_photo.caption In this image from file video provided by UK Ministry of Defence, British navy vessel HMS Montrose escorts another ship during a mission to remove chemical weapons from Syria at sea off coast of Cyprus in February 2014. The British Navy said it intercepted an attempt on Thursday, July 11, 2019, by three Iranian paramilitary vessels to impede the passage of a British commercial vessel just days after Iran’s president warned of repercussions for the seizure of its own supertanker. A U.K. government statement said Iranian vessels only turned away after receiving “verbal warnings” from the HMS Montrose accompanying the commercial ship through the narrow Strait of Hormuz. (UK Ministry of Defence via AP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- The British navy said Thursday that it stopped three Iranian paramilitary vessels from disrupting the passage of a British oil tanker through the Strait of Hormuz in a brief but tense standoff stemming from the U.K.'s role in seizing a supertanker carrying Iranian oil a week earlier.

The incident highlights how fragile maritime security has become through one of the world's most vital energy supply routes as President Donald Trump's administration carries out a campaign of maximum pressure on Iran.

Iran recently began breaching uranium enrichment limits set in its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers in response to Trump's decision to pull the U.S. out of the accord a year ago. He also has reimposed tough sanctions on Tehran's oil exports, exacerbating an economic crisis that has sent its currency plummeting.

Russia and China, both signatories to the nuclear agreement along with Britain, France and Germany, have called for restraint. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said "freedom of navigation should be ensured in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz."

Iran's Revolutionary Guard denied any incident had occurred in the strait, saying if it had received orders to seize any ships it would have done so immediately. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, however, had warned on Wednesday of repercussions for the seizure of the vessel carrying Iranian oil by Britain's Royal Marines in Gibraltar, off the southern coast of Spain last week.

The U.K. said in a statement that the British naval vessel HMS Montrose had been accompanying the commercial ship, British Heritage, through the narrow Strait of Hormuz, a crucial waterway for energy shipments. It said three Iranian vessels attempted "to impede" the ship's passage.

"HMS Montrose was forced to position herself between the Iranian vessels and British Heritage and issue verbal warnings to the Iranian vessels, which then turned away," the statement said.

The HMS Montrose is on a three-year mission at the British navy's support facility in Bahrain, the hub of its naval operations east of the Suez Canal.

U.K. Defense Secretary Penny Mordaunt said the government is concerned by the incident and urged Iranian authorities to de-escalate the situation. She thanked the Royal Navy for upholding international law and supporting freedom of navigation through the Strait of Hormuz.

A U.S. aircraft was in the area at the time of the incident and the military has video imagery, a U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss security matters. The U.S. 5th Fleet in Bahrain declined to comment on the incident.

U.S. Central Command spokesman Capt. Bill Urban said the agency was aware of reports of "harassment and attempts to interfere with" the passage of the British Heritage near the Strait of Hormuz by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' naval forces.

In recent months, the U.S. has sent thousands of additional troops, an aircraft carrier, B-52 bombers and advanced fighter jets to the region as tensions with Iran rise.

Washington has blamed Iran for a series of mysterious attacks on oil tankers in the region in the past two months -- charges that Tehran denies. Tensions spiked further last month when Iran shot down an American military surveillance drone, which the U.S. says was in international airspace but Tehran says had violated Iranian airspace.

On Thursday, the semiofficial Fars news agency carried a statement from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's navy saying "there were no clashes with alien floats, especially British boats."

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif dismissed the British allegations as "worthless," saying the claims "are being made to create tension," Fars reported.

In recent days, Iran had summoned the British ambassador over what it called the "illegal interception" of its tanker. Rouhani had also warned that Britain would face "repercussions" over the seizure.

The operation to seize the tanker took place at the request of the U.S. Authorities in Gibraltar, assisted in the seizure by Britain's Royal Marines, suspected the vessel was breaching European sanctions on oil shipments to Syria.

Iran has, meanwhile, set an early September deadline for world powers to save the nuclear agreement, saying it would otherwise take a third step in going beyond the deal's limits.

Iran maintains it is justified in breaching the limitations because the U.S. already broke the deal with its unilateral withdrawal.

Information for this article was contributed by David Rising, Robert Burns, Andrew Drake and Danica Kirka of The Associated Press.

A Section on 07/12/2019

Print Headline: British navy thwarts bid to hinder tanker at strait

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