Quick subterfuge and panicked late-night phonecalls: How the Iran tanker hijacking unfolded

·4-min read
The vessel that is now the Asphalt Princess seen in 2012 - Steve Geronazzo via AP
The vessel that is now the Asphalt Princess seen in 2012 - Steve Geronazzo via AP

It was late afternoon in the Gulf of Oman when the speedboat came alongside the red and blue painted hull of the MV Asphalt Princess.

Seven heavily armed individuals clambered up the side and ordered the crew to sail for Iranian waters.

The crew initially struggled to make sense of their uninvited guests.

“We have Iranian people on board with ammunition, and we are drifting,” one confused crew member said in a call to Emirati coast guards.  

He added the boarding party consisted of “around five to six people.”

But asked what the Iranians were doing on board, he said he “did not understand” them and suggested the coastguards talk to the boarding party directly.

There was good reason for confusion.

The Asphalt Princess was not your typical target in the Israeli-Iranian shadow war that has blighted shipping in these waters for the past six months.

Launched in 1975, the ageing bitumen carrier is just 9500 deadweight tons, making it a minnow among the enormous super tankers bound for far-flung ports that traverse the gulf of Hormuz daily.

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And unlike the MV Mercer, the Israeli-linked modern super tanker attacked by drones the previous week, it had no obvious connection to either of the antagonists.

That has prompted speculation that the apparent hijacking was linked to a financial dispute or suspected fuel smuggling. Iranian authorities seized another tanker linked to the same Dubai-based ship owner on similar charges in 2019.

But with tensions high after the West blamed Iran for the deaths of one British and one Romanian crew member on the Mercer Street, the incident set alarm bells ringing around the world.

The Royal Navy’s United Kingdom Marine Trade Operations (UKMTO), an information service that shares information between the military and the wider shipping industry, quickly issued a warning to all shipping about a “non pirate” hijacking.

The Royal Oman Navy scrambled ships and helicopters, and the US Fifth Fleet dispatched the USS Mitscher, an Arleigh Burke-Class guided missile destroyer, to investigate.

Back on the bridge of the Asphalt Princess, the hijackers had a problem.  

Quick thinking crew members had disabled the ship’s engine in a way that made it look irretrievably damaged. And the boarding party simply could not figure out a way to get it started again.

In the early hours of the morning the gunmen clambered back over the side, and sped off into the night before the US destroyer arrived.

The Israeli-linked Japanese-owned tanker MT Mercer Street - KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images
The Israeli-linked Japanese-owned tanker MT Mercer Street - KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images

The UKTMO issued another of its tersely worded statements: “Boarders have left the vessel. Vessel is safe. Incident complete.”

Diplomatically, however, the incident is still far from complete.

The Telegraph understands Iran’s ambassador to the UK spoke to the Foreign Office in the early hours of the morning in a bid to calm tensions.

Neither the foreign office nor the Iranian Embassy would comment on the conversation.

But in a Twitter thread on Friday afternoon the Iranian embassy claimed there was no evidence any incident had taken place and warned about “false flag” attacks on Gulf shipping.

Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, on Wednesday said he had written to the UN Security Council urging it to take action against Iran over the attack on the MV Mercer Street.

"The UK has written to UN Security Council President T S Tirumurti alongside Romania & Liberia to raise Iran’s attack on MV Mercer Street," Mr Raab wrote on Twitter.

"The Council must respond to Iran’s destabilising actions and lack of respect for international law."

The UK is taking the lead on the international response to Iran and is due to raise the issue at a UN Security Council meeting on Friday.

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The Briton who was killed has been named as father-of-one Adrian Underwood, who was employed by the British security firm Ambrey.

Earlier General Sir Nick Carter, the chief of the defence staff of the armed forces, said that the UK must retaliate against Iran to deter it from carrying out further attacks in the Gulf region.

Gen Carter told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "What we need to be doing, fundamentally, is calling out Iran for its very reckless behaviour."

The Israeli government on Wednesday accused an Iranian military officer, Saeed Ara Jani, of being personally responsible for the drone attack on the MV Mercer Street, claiming he was the head of the Revolutionary Guards' drone unit.

"For the first time ever, I will also expose the man who is directly responsible for the launch of suicide UAVs [unmanned vehicles] - his name is Saeed Ara Jani and he is the Head of the IRGC’s UAV Command," Israeli defence minister Benny Gantz said.

"The UAV command conducted the attack on Mercer Street. Saeed Ara Jani plans and provides the training and equipment to conduct terror attacks in the region," Israeli defence minister Benny Gantz said.

The Telegraph has approached Iranian authorities for comment.

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