This post will be updated with additional information as it becomes available.
Two U.S. guided-missile destroyers are aiding a merchant ship that was damaged in an alleged attack by Iranian sectarian forces on Thursday, U.S. 5th Fleet officials told USNI News on Friday.
USS Mason (DDG-87) and USS Bainbridge (DDG-96) are assisting M/V Kokuka Courageous as the ship is prepared to be towed for repairs, U.S. 5th Fleet spokesperson Cmdr. Joshua Frey said on Friday morning. The ships were operating just off of Iranian territorial waters in the Gulf of Oman, according to signals from the merchant ships’ AIS navigation transponders.
Twenty-one mariners who abandoned the tanker after an explosion are now back aboard to assist in an operation to tow the Japanese-owned ship to safety.
“USS Bainbridge remains in close contact with M/V Kokuka Courageous and is the on-scene command authority,” Frey said.
On Thursday morning local time, Kokuka Courageous and the Norwegian-owned Front Altair were damaged in what U.S. officials allege were attacks from small attack craft owned by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy.
Separate from the regular Iranian military, the IRGCN answers to Iran’s religious leadership and is responsible for Iran’s coastal defense and the Strait of Hormuz.
Both ships were bound for Asia. The attacks occurred during a meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Iran’s sectarian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran.
As of early Friday morning, the Norwegian-owned tanker Front Altair was still afloat but burning nearby. U.S. officials were unable to provide additional details on support to save the ship. Iranian state-controlled media released photos of firefighting vessels attempting to control the burning. The crew was initially rescued by a South Korea merchant ship but were transferred to an Iranian craft by request. As of late Thursday, the crew was ashore in Iran.
Late Thursday, U.S. Central Command provided reporters with a timeline of events, photos of the damage to Kokuka Courageous and a video of what CENTCOM says is Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy members removing a limpet mine from the hull of Kokuka Courageous.
Iran has denied the allegations and is contesting the efficacy of the evidence presented by U.S. Central Command.
On Thursday, Kokuka Courageous owners told reporters the ship had been shelled twice, hours apart.
“Kokuka Sangyo said it had received a report that the Kokuka Courage was hit by two shells, three hours apart,” according to a report in the Financial Times.
“Our crew said that the ship was attacked by a flying object,” Yutaka Katada, the president Kokuka Sangyo, told reporters in Japan.
The president of Japanese ship operator Kokuka Sangyo says its crew saw a “flying object” before the tanker attack near the Strait of Hormuz.
— TicToc by Bloomberg (@tictoc) June 14, 2019
It’s unclear yet if the situation will move the U.S. to start escorting ships in and out of the Persian Gulf. The U.S. destroyers briefly escorted U.S. and U.K. merchant ships through the Strait of Hormuz in 2015 after IRGCN forces captured the U.S.-flagged ship Maersk Tigris.
U.S. officials told USNI News there were no plans to start convoys as of Friday morning.
The alleged attacks on the ships in the Gulf of Oman follow May explosive attacks on four ships in the vicinity of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates which the U.S. said were conducted by Iran.
Last month, the U.S. moved the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group early from the Mediterranean Sea to the Middle East based on intelligence “a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings,” John Bolton, U.S. National Security Advisor, said at the time.
Norfolk, Va.-based Bainbridge and Mason are attached to the Lincoln CSG.