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Saudi Arabia says it destroyed boat with bombs in port near Red Sea

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A lighthouse at the port of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. A series of attacks on shipping have hit the wider Middle East region. Photo: Shutterstock

Saudi forces on Tuesday destroyed an explosive-laden boat off the coast of the Red Sea port of Yanbu, the defence ministry said.

“A bomb-laden unmanned [vessel] was intercepted and destroyed this morning,” the ministry said in a statement, published by the official Saudi Press Agency. “Naval units were able to detect and monitor the activity of the bomb-laden [boat] in the Red Sea waters off the shores of Yanbu.”

No group has so far claimed responsibility for the incident, which the ministry said was under investigation.

Details remained scarce, but the incident comes after a series of attacks on shipping in the wider Middle East region amid a shadow war between Iran and Israel and against the backdrop of ongoing negotiations between Tehran and world powers over Iran’s tattered nuclear deal.

The incident also comes amid the kingdom’s years-long war against Yemen’s Houthi rebels. The Houthis have in the past used bomb-laden drones and explosive-packed boats in attacks targeting the kingdom.

However, the rebels did not immediately claim any assaults on Tuesday and did not respond to a request for comment.

The state-run Saudi Press Agency quoted Saudi military spokesman Colonel Turki al-Maliki saying the port was targeted by the drone boat.

 “The booby-trapped boat was dealt and destroyed according to the rules of engagement,” the report quoted al-Maliki as saying, without providing evidence for his claim.

The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, run by the British navy, simply said it was “aware of reports of an incident” and that investigations were ongoing. Private maritime security firm Dryad Global said it had reports that a ship had been “attacked”, without elaborating.

Maritime security firm Neptune P2P Group reported that black smoke was seen billowing near the south entrance of the Yanbu port.

British maritime security firm Ambrey reported an “incident” off western Saudi Arabia, between the ports of Yanbu and Rabigh.

Earlier on Tuesday morning, smoke was seen rising from a vessel off the Saudi oil-shipping port of Yanbu, the firm said. Multiple tankers remain anchored or drifting in the area.

Yanbu port control broadcast a message by marine VHF radio, warning vessels to increase their level of alertness and monitor for any suspicious activity, Ambrey said.

The US Navy’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet declined to immediately comment on the incident.

Yanbu, 870 kilometres (540 miles) west of Riyadh, serves as the end point of the kingdom’s crucial East-West Pipeline.

It allows crude oil pumped in its eastern fields to be shipped directly via the Red Sea, avoiding the Persian Gulf’s chokepoint at the Strait of Hormuz. Yanbu is also home to an oil refinery that can process 400,000 barrels of crude per day.

In May 2019, then-US National Security Adviser John Bolton claimed that Yanbu had been targeted in an attack never acknowledged by the kingdom.

Meanwhile, American and Iranian warships had a tense encounter in the Persian Gulf earlier this month, the first such incident in about a year, the US Navy said on Tuesday.

Footage released by the Navy showed a ship commanded by Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard cut in front of the USCGC Monomoy, causing the coastguard vessel to come to an abrupt stop with its engine smoking on April 2.

The Guard also did the same with another coastguard vessel, the USCGC Wrangell, said Commander Rebecca Rebarich, a 5th Fleet spokeswoman. Such close passes risk the ships colliding at sea.

Iran did not immediately acknowledge the incident in the southern reaches of the Persian Gulf, which resulted in no injuries or damage.

“The US crews issued multiple warnings via bridge-to-bridge radio, five short blasts from the ships’ horns, and while the [Iranian] Harth 55 responded to the bridge-to-bridge radio queries, they continued the unsafe manoeuvres,” Rebarich said.

“After approximately three hours of the US issuing warning and conducting defensive manoeuvres, the [Iranian] vessels manoeuvred away from the US ships and opened distance between them.”

The Wall Street Journal first reported on the incident, which involved the Iranian Harth support ship and three Iranian fast-attack craft. The coastguard units operate out of Bahrain as part of Patrol Forces Southwest Asia, its biggest unit overseas.

The interaction marked the first “unsafe and unprofessional” incident involving the Iranians since April 15, 2020, Rebarich said. However, Iran had largely stopped such incidents in 2018 and nearly in the entirety of 2019, she said.

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In 2017, the Navy recorded 14 instances of what it describes as “unsafe and or unprofessional” interactions with Iranian forces. It recorded 35 in 2016, and 23 in 2015.

The incidents at sea almost always involve the Revolutionary Guard, which reports only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Typically, they involve Iranian speedboats armed with deck-mounted machine guns and rocket launchers test-firing weapons or shadowing American aircraft carriers passing through the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20 per cent of all oil passes.

Some analysts believe the incidents are meant in part to squeeze President Hassan Rowhani’s administration after the 2015 nuclear deal. They include a 2016 incident in which Iranian forces captured and held overnight 10 US sailors who strayed into the Islamic Republic’s territorial waters.

“US naval forces continue to remain vigilant and are trained to act in a professional manner, while our commanding officers retain the inherent right to act in self-defence,” Rebarich said.

The incident comes as Iran negotiates with world powers in Vienna over Tehran and Washington returning to the 2015 nuclear deal, with talks due to resume on Tuesday.

It also follows a series of incidents across the Mideast attributed to a shadow war between Iran and Israel, which includes attacks on regional shipping and sabotage at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility.