This post has been updated with a map of the approximate location of the attack.
An exploding drone killed two crew members aboard a merchant tanker off the coast of Oman, U.S. 5th Fleet said in a late Friday statement.
The two were crew members aboard the Liberian-flagged tanker Mercer Street when the ship was hit with at least one explosive-laden unmanned aerial vehicle late Thursday, according to the statement.
U.S. forces responded to the distress call from Mercer Street and “upon arrival, U.S. forces determined through clear visual evidence that an attack had occurred,” reads the statement.
“Initial indications clearly point to a UAV-style attack.”
Of those killed, one crewmember was from Romania and the other was British, London-based Zodiac Maritime, the company that manages the Japanese-owned tanker, said in a statement on Twitter. Zodiac is owned by Israeli business magnate Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group, reported The Associated Press.
The tanker was attacked in the Indian Ocean about 152 nautical miles northeast of Duqm, Oman, about 21 nautical miles off the coast of Oman, according to U.K. Maritime Trade Operations.
Explosive ordinance and disposal sailors are aboard the tanker to assess any additional threats and collect evidence for any investigation, USNI News understands. A Saturday morning request to U.S. 5th Fleet for additional information on the units involved and the nature of the investigation was not immediately returned.
As of late Friday, Mercer Street was sailing under its own power and now under escort from aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) and guided-missile destroyer USS Mitscher (DDG-35), according to 5th Fleet.
The Japan-based Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group has been operating in the Middle East since late June to provide air cover for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
While no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, indications are the strike was part of an ongoing maritime conflict between Israel and Iran.
On July 3, a merchant ship that had recently been owned by Zodiac was allegedly attacked by an Iranian drone en route from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to Jebel Ali, UAE, reported The New York Times.
Iran has widely been suspected of supplying proxy groups throughout the Middle East so-called “suicide drones” to use against regional rivals. The remotely operated and explosive-laden boats and aircraft have been used in attacks throughout the Middle East.
For its part, Isreal has also targeted Iranian vessels suspected of supplying Syria with oil.
“Since late 2019, Israel has used weaponry including water mines to strike Iranian vessels or those carrying Iranian cargo as they navigate toward Syria in the Red Sea and in other areas of the region,” reported The Wall Street Journal.
In a late Friday tweet, Israel’s foreign minister Yair Lapid called on the U.K. to “respond severely” to the attack that killed a British citizen and said his government was in touch with the U.S. and U.N. in regards to the incident.
“Iran is not just an Israeli problem, but an exporter of terrorism, destruction and instability that are hurting us all,” Lapid said in a separate tweet.
“We must never remain silent in the face of Iranian terrorism, which also harms freedom of navigation.”
The following is the complete statement from U.S. 5th FLeet.
ARABIAN SEA (July 30, 2021) – U. S. naval forces responded to an emergency distress call following an attack on a merchant vessel in the international waters of the Arabian Sea, Jul. 30.
Upon arrival, U.S. forces determined through clear visual evidence that an attack had occurred.
The Liberian-flagged merchant vessel, Mercer Street, is now underway on its own power and there is no ongoing threat to the vessel’s personnel. The vessel is currently being escorted by the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, with embarked Carrier Strike Group 5, and the Guided Missile Destroyer USS Mitscher.
U.S. Navy personnel are on the Mercer Street, assisting the vessel’s crew. The U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet headquarters is coordinating with vessel ownership regarding the type of assistance requested.
U.S. Navy explosives experts are aboard to ensure there is no additional danger to the crew, and are prepared to support an investigation into the attack. Initial indications clearly point to a UAV-style attack. There were no U.S. citizens onboard the vessel at the time of the attack. Regretfully, two members of the ship’s crew were killed in the attack, and governments of the nations of those two crewmembers are aware of the tragedy.
The U.S. 5th Fleet regularly works with coalition forces, regional partners and the shipping industry to maintain the regional awareness necessary to facilitate aid to mariners in distress.