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story.lead_photo.caption A Japanese journalist takes a photograph of mariners from the MT Front Altair in a bus after they left Dubai International Airport in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Saturday, June 15, 2019, after spending two days in Iran. Associated Press journalists saw the crew members of the MT Front Altair on Saturday night after their Iran Air flight from Bandar Abbas, Iran, landed in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. The Norwegian-owned oil tanker was attacked Thursday, June 13, in the Gulf of Oman. The U.S. has accused Iran of attacking the Front Altair and another oil tanker with limpet mines. Iran has denied the allegations. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Crew members from a Norwegian-owned oil tanker that was apparently attacked in the Gulf of Oman landed Saturday in Dubai after two days in Iran as the other tanker targeted in the assault limped into anchorage off the eastern coast of the United Arab Emirates.

Both the mariners' recollection and the physical evidence remaining on the MT Front Altair and the Kokuka Courageous, now off the coast of Fujairah, will play an important role in determining whom the international community blames for Thursday's explosions on board the oil tankers.

Already, the U.S. has blamed Iran for what it described as an attack with limpet mines on the two tankers, pointing to black-and-white footage it captured that American officials describe as Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops removing an unexploded mine from the Kokuka Courageous.

Tehran rejects the allegation, instead accusing the U.S. under President Donald Trump of pursuing an "Iranophobic" campaign against it. However, Iran used mines against oil tankers in 1987 and 1988 in the "Tanker War," which saw the U.S. Navy escort ships through the region -- something American officials may consider doing again.

In a new allegation Saturday, the U.S. military accused Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops of trying but failing to shoot down a U.S. drone to disrupt surveillance of the tankers during the attacks.

All this comes after four other oil tankers off Fujairah suffered similar attacks in recent weeks, and Iranian-allied rebels from Yemen have struck U.S. ally Saudi Arabia with drones and missiles.

Trump withdrew America last year from the 2015 nuclear deal that Iran reached with world powers and recently imposed a series of sanctions now squeezing Iran's economy and cutting deeply into its oil exports. While Iran maintains it has nothing to do with the recent attacks, its leaders repeatedly have threatened to close the vital Strait of Hormuz, through which 20% of the world's oil flows.

Separately, the U.S. granted Iraq a 120-day waiver from sanctions to let the nation import electricity from Iran, the State Department said Saturday.

The decision by the Trump administration to allow Iraq to continue buying power from neighboring Iran followed a phone call Friday between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.

"While this waiver is intended to help Iraq mitigate energy shortages, we continue to discuss our Iran-related sanctions with our partners in Iraq," the State Department said in an emailed statement.

"We are also continuing to work with Iraq to end its dependence on Iranian natural gas and electricity and increase its energy independence," according to the statement. "Expanding the use of Iraq's own natural resources and diversifying energy imports away from Iran will strengthen Iraq's economy and development as well as encourage a united, democratic, and prosperous Iraq free from malign Iranian influence."

SILENT SAILORS

On Saturday, Associated Press journalists saw the crew members of Front Altair after their Iran Air flight from Bandar Abbas, Iran, landed at Dubai International Airport. Ten of its 23 mariners walked out to be greeted by officials who earlier could be heard saying the others would be catching connecting flights.

The officials repeatedly refused to identify themselves to journalists. They and the sailors declined to take questions.

The Front Altair caught fire after the attack Thursday, sending a thick cloud of black smoke visible even by satellite from space. A passing ship rescued the crewmen, who later were turned over to Iranian officials. Iran took the mariners to Jask, then later Bandar Abbas before putting them on the flight Saturday night. The tanker crew was composed of 11 Russians, 11 Filipinos and one Georgian.

Meanwhile on Saturday, the Kokuka Courageous arrived off the coast of Fujairah. Journalists in the city could not reach the vessel, as boat captains said authorities instructed them not to go near the stricken vessel.

The Kokuka Courageous is the vessel at which Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops were filmed Thursday removing something from the ship's hull. The U.S. military says they removed an unexploded limpet mine, which can be magnetically attached to a vessel. The implication is that Iran wanted to remove any evidence that could link it to the attack. Weapons experts can examine a mine for clues about its manufacturer.

The black-and-white video provided Friday by the U.S. military's Central Command came from an MH-60 Seahawk helicopter, said Cmdr. Joshua Frey, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. Such helicopters carry infrared cameras that can record heat signatures in black and white.

In a statement released Saturday, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command said an American drone had been observing the Front Altair as it was on fire. Several minutes later, Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops fired a modified Iranian SA-7 surface-to-air missile to try to take down the drone in a likely attempt to disrupt its surveillance of the Kokuka Courageous, Lt . Col. Earl Brown said.

NUCLEAR DEAL THREAT

Tensions in the Persian Gulf have risen as Iran appears poised to break the nuclear deal. In the deal, Tehran agreed to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of crippling sanctions. Now, Iran is threatening to resume enriching uranium closer to weapons-grade levels if European nations don't offer it new terms to the deal by July 7.

Already, Iran says it has quadrupled its production of low-enriched uranium. Meanwhile, U.S. sanctions have cut off opportunities for Iran to trade its excess uranium and heavy water abroad, putting Tehran on course to violate terms of the nuclear deal regardless.

In May, the U.S. rushed an aircraft carrier strike group and other military assets to the region in response to what it said were threats from Iran.

Regardless of who is responsible for the tanker attacks, the price of a barrel of benchmark Brent crude spiked as much as 4% immediately after the explosions Thursday, showing how critical the region remains to the global economy. The Saudi Energy Ministry quoted Minister Khalid al-Falih on Saturday as saying "a rapid and decisive response" was needed to the recent attacks.

Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the United Arab Emirates' foreign minister, called the May attacks against the four oil tankers off Fujairah "state-sponsored." He declined to name who his country suspected of carrying out the attacks.

Al-Falih said Saturday that those responsible for a recent missile launch on an airport in Saudi Arabia likely perpetrated the attacks on the ships near the Strait of Hormuz.

Al-Falih's comments during a G-20 ministerial meeting on energy and the environment in Japan come after Trump blamed Iran for the vessel attacks near the strait. A missile fired Wednesday by Iranian-backed Yemeni rebels hit Abha International Airport. The Saudi minister didn't mention a country or group by name.

"The kingdom itself has also been attacked in the past," Al-Falih said at the meeting in the mountain resort town of Karuizawa. "Our energy infrastructure but also our civilian locations, like the airport in Abha where 26 civilians were hurt in a missile attack. We suspect it came from the same source as that that attacked the ships."

Late Saturday, the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels claimed a new drone attack targeting Saudi Arabia. Yahia al-Sarie, a Houthi spokesman, said the rebels' drones targeted airports in Jizan and Abha in Saudi Arabia.

Early today, the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen said it shot down a drone near the Abha regional airport, but it did not acknowledge the Jizan claim.

A Saudi-led military coalition has been fighting the Houthis since March 2015.

Information for this article was contributed by Jon Gambrell, Fay Abuelgasim and Menelaos Hadjicostis of The Associated Press and by Tsuyoshi Inajima, Shawn Donnan and Khalid Al-Ansary of Bloomberg News.

A Section on 06/16/2019

Print Headline: Crew of attacked ship out of Iranian hands

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