Mystery Tanker damage blamed on attack, Japan seeks details
2010-08-09 0:00

By Erika Solomon and Kiyoshi Takenaka |

Militants attacked a Japanese supertanker with explosives near the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s most important shipping routes, the United Arab Emirates state news agency said on Friday.

The crew of the 333-meter-long M.Star reported an explosion shortly after midnight on July 28, injuring one seaman though causing no oil spill or disruption to shipping in the strategic waterway, bordered by Iran, Oman, and the UAE.

"An examination carried out by specialized teams has confirmed that the tanker has been the subject of a terrorist attack," state news agency WAM said, quoting an unidentified coastguard source.

"UAE explosives experts who collected and examined samples found a dent on the starboard side above the water line and remains of home-made explosives on the hull," the source said.

Two days ago, a militant group calling itself the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, which is linked to al Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the incident.

Security analysts based in the Gulf, some previously skeptical of suggestions the ship was attacked, said they believed the state news agency report.

"The UAE has no interest in portraying this as a terrorist attack," said Theodore Karasik, a security analyst of Dubai-based INEGMA. "So saying that it is, that’s significant."

The M.Star incident has provoked several theories about the cause, ranging from a freak wave to a collision with a U.S. nuclear submarine.

The ship’s hull was damaged on the starboard side, and a lifeboat was blown off the deck and windows and doors were smashed.


A spokeswoman for shipowner Mitsui O.S.K. said the company could not confirm details of the WAM report.

"The investigation on the tanker is still continuing, and while we are looking at all possibilities, the company has not heard anything that will help determine the cause of the damage," she said.

The company’s president, Koichi Muto, said he did not rule out the possibility of an attack, according to the Nikkei business daily.

Oil prices were not affected and there were no indications of shipping being more carefully patrolled in the Strait of Hormuz, oil traders said.

"No shipowners are panicking," a trader, who asked not to be named, said.

However, analysts said if a strike were confirmed, security for shipping would have to be increased.

"If the attack on the M.Star is not a one-time event, but others follow, it does place additional stress on both the shipping industry and the navies of the world," said J.Peter Pham, a strategic adviser to U.S. and European governments.

The narrow Strait of Hormuz handles 40 percent of the world’s seaborne oil and is patrolled by U.S. and other warships. Karasik said while there were no signs of it yet, the incident may lead to changes in naval patrols in the region.

"You’ll see more warships patrolling in, around, and outside of the Strait," he said.

Industry sources said the tanker carried more than 2 million barrels of Qatar Land and Abu Dhabi Lower Zakum crudes, equivalent to about half of Japan’s daily oil needs.

Carsten Fritsch, an analyst with Commerzbank in Frankfurt, said the oil trade would not be affected by the attack because high inventories and spare OPEC capacity.


A spokesman for the U.S. Fifth Fleet, part of an international coalition of navies that patrol Gulf waters, said U.S. Navy divers had taken part in examining the ship.

"Our experts will be in contact with UAE officials about their findings and the Fifth Fleet will continue to assist the Mitsui investigation," he said.

"Our coalition and regional partners have maintained constant vigilance in the area and we will continue to do so."

The UAE report said the M.Star had left local waters to resume its voyage to Japan, which trade sources confirmed.

A Japanese Transport Ministry official said that samples from the tanker, including some taken from the dent, were on their way to Japan to help pinpoint the cause of the damage.

"We’ve asked for any remains that could help us identify the cause. Some kind of soot may be among them. Something melted could be among them," the official said.

Mustafa Alani of the Gulf Research Center said while details were still vague, it appeared that inexperienced militants had made a "very amateur attempt" at mimicking the 2000 suicide bomb attack on the U.S. warship Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden, where a boat rigged with explosives killed 17 U.S. sailors.

The French-flagged oil tanker Limburg was attacked off Yemen using a bomb-laden dinghy in 2002, killing one crew member. Al Qaeda-linked militants linked to both attacks escaped from jail near the Yemeni city of Sanaa in 2006.

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