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'We will protect our assets in the Gulf': Defence Minister sends warns

Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood has warned Britain 'will protect its assets in the Gulf' after last week's attacks on two oil tankers.

Speaking on Sky TV's Sophy Ridge on Sunday, he blamed Iran's 'negative influence' for causing 'extra tensions' across the Middle East and said the row with the United States over a controversial nuclear deal was no excuse for military action. 

Mr Ellwood warned: 'I don't think Iran should be under any doubt that we will be determined to protect our assets and our interests in the region.'  

He added: 'I understand the frustrations over the nuclear deal but that does not give licence to start attacking ships in the Straits of Hormuz.' 

Tobias Ellwood said Sunday Britain would be protecting its assets in the Gulf after the recent oil tanker attacks

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt admitted there is a 'great risk' of another war in the Gulf following attacks on oil tankers that have been blamed on Iran.

A Japanese-owned tanker, the Kokuka Courageous, and a Norwegian-operated one, the Front Altair, were attacked on Thursday and left ablaze as they were passing through the Gulf of Oman.

Britain has concluded that responsibility 'almost certainly' lies with Iran and while today the MoD played down reports that Royal Marines were being sent to the region to protect British warships, the government made clear action would be taken if necessary. 

An oil tanker is seen after it was attacked at the Gulf of Oman, in waters between Gulf Arab states and Iran on Thursday - Donald Trump said the two attacks had Iran 'written all over it'

Iran has faced international condemnation for last Thursday's attack on two oil tankers, despite claiming to have had nothing to do with them.

And Jeremy Hunt warned today that there was a 'great risk' of escalation in the Gulf, adding that Washington wanted the situation to end in negotiations.

Asked about escalation, he said: 'This is the great risk of the situation that we are in.

'Both sides in this dispute think that the other side wouldn't want a war. We are urging all sides to de-escalate.

Speaking on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show, he said: 'Having spoken to President Trump I am absolutely clear that for America they want this to end in negotiations that see Iran stop its destabilising activities.' 

'Let's see Iran stop its destabilising activities in Lebanon through Hezbollah, in Yemen where they are firing missiles into Saudi Arabia, on the Gulf as we have seen. That is the long-term solution.'

The attack on the tanker left it ablaze and adrift while sailors were quickly evacuated

Jeremy Hunt, pictured talking to Andrew Marr this morning, said he was 'absolutely clear' American wants to end the stand-off peaceably 

Yesterday military sources told the Times that 100 British Royal Marines will form a rapid reaction force in the Gulf.

It is understood they will operate from ships patrolling the region from Britain's new naval base in Bahrain, and use speedboats and helicopters to protect warships and UK merchant navy vessels.

But the MoD denied the deployment, which they said constituted just 30 commandos on a training exercise, was linked to rising tensions.

'This is a pre-planned training deployment and is in no way related to the ongoing situation in the Gulf of Oman,' an MOD spokesman said. 

The damaged Kokuka Courageous arrived Sunday at a UAE anchorage site as Saudi Arabia accused arch-rival Iran of being behind the attack.

US President Donald Trump has said the twin attacks had Iran 'written all over it' - rejecting Tehran's vehement denial.

President Donald Trump on Friday charged Iran with attacking oil tankers in the Persian Gulf and warned Tehran their actions will not be taken lightly. 'Iran did do it,' Trump said on 'Fox & Friends' when he called in to the morning show for an interview 

Hunt defended his assertion that Iran was 'almost certain' to blame for the attacks.

'We have done our own intelligence assessment. We have got videos of what happened. We have seen evidence. We don't believe anyone else could have done this,' he said.

The owner of the Japanese vessel said Friday in Tokyo however that the crew saw a 'flying object' prior to a second blast on board citing two apparent attacks.

He added he believed initial reports suggesting a torpedo was involved in the attack were incorrect as the damage was above the sea surface not below water, which would have suggested a torpedo.

Tensions between Iran and the United States have increased dramatically since Donald Trump took office.

Meanwhile, today the two damaged tankers arrived safely to locations off the Emirati coast.

The Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous was carrying highly flammable methanol through the Gulf of Oman on Thursday when it came under attack along with the Norwegian-operated Front Altair - the second assault in a month in the strategic shipping lane.

US President Donald Trump has said the operation had Iran 'written all over it' - rejecting Tehran's vehement denial - and its key Gulf ally Saudi Arabia has also lashed out against Tehran.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (right) met in Tehran on Thursday with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who on Friday condemned the attack but didn't say who he blamed for it 

'We do not want a war in the region... But we won't hesitate to deal with any threat to our people, our sovereignty, our territorial integrity and our vital interests,' he told pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

He said Iran had responded to a visit to Tehran by Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe 'by attacking two tankers, one of which was Japanese'.

Abe had been on an unprecedented visit to the Iranian capital in a bid to defuse tensions between Washington and the Islamic Republic when the attacks took place.

The US military on Friday released grainy footage it said showed an Iranian patrol boat removing an 'unexploded limpet mine' from the Japanese vessel.

The crew of the Kokuka Courageous saw a 'flying object' before a second blast on board, the operator's head said Friday.

The vessel's Singapore-based BSM Ship Management said in a statement today that it had 'arrived safely at the designated anchorage' and that its crew were 'safe and well'.

A damage assessment and preparations for transferring the ship's cargo would start once authorities had completed 'security checks and formalities', it added.

The other ship, the Front Altair, was under safe tow by tug boats towards an area off the coast of the eastern Emirati port of Fujairah.

'First inspections are under way and no hot spots have been identified following the fire,' the vessel's owners said in a statement today.

It said all crew members were in Dubai, where they will 'assist with the debrief to the owner's legal team and the appropriate authorities, before returning home'.

The UAE's Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan on Saturday called on world powers 'to secure international navigation and access to energy', a plea echoed by regional ally Saudi Arabia after the incident sent crude prices soaring.

Thursday's attacks took place southeast of the Strait of Hormuz, a vital corridor connecting the energy-rich states of the Middle East with markets in Asia, Europe, North America and elsewhere.

According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), 35 percent of the world's seaborne oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz.

Iran, which is struggling with crippling US sanctions, has repeatedly warned in the past that it could block the Strait in a relatively low-tech, high-impact countermeasure to any attack by the United States.

Doing so would disrupt oil tankers travelling out of the Gulf region to the Indian Ocean and global export routes.

Iran's parliament speaker said Sunday that Washington could have been behind the 'suspicious' tanker attacks, the official news agency IRNA reported.

'The suspicious actions against the tankers... seem to complement the economic sanctions against Iran, considering that (the US) has not achieved any results from them,' he told MPs.

Pope Francis said Sunday he was following 'with concern' the growing tensions in the Gulf.

He appealed 'to the international community to pursue every possible effort to promote dialogue and peace'. 

Timeline: Escalation in the Gulf region  

May 5: The U.S. says it is sending  the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier group and a bomber task force to the Middle East because of a 'credible threat' from Iran.  

Since then Washington has announced the dispatch to the region of an amphibious assault ship, a Patriot missile battery and an extra 1,500 troops.

May 8: Iran vows to enrich its uranium stockpile closer to weapons-grade levels starting July 7 if world powers fail to negotiate new terms for its nuclear deal. 

The U.S. responds by imposing fresh sanctions on Iran's steel and mining sectors. 

Smoke pours from the Norwegian-owned oil tanker on Thursday after it was hit by an explosion near the UAE and Iran in an apparent attack which has put the Middle East on high alert 

May 12:  Two Saudi oil tankers and two other ships are damaged in mysterious 'sabotage attacks' off the coast of Fujairah, part of the United Arab Emirates.

Washington believes Iran is to blame for the attacks, but Tehran denies involvement. 

May 14: Yemen's pro-Iranian Huthi rebels carry out drone attacks near Riyadh, shutting down a key Saudi oil pipeline.

Two days later Saudi-led coalition air strikes hit the rebel-held Yemeni capital Sanaa.

The next day the U.S. orders all non-emergency diplomats to leave Iraq, due to an 'imminent' threat from Iranian-linked Iraqi militias.

May 19: Trump warns that if Iran attacks American interests 'that will be the official end of Iran'.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif says the 'genocidal taunts' of U.S. Trump will not 'end Iran'.

May 27: Trump says the U.S. is 'not looking for regime change' in Iran. 

May 30:  Saudi Arabia - which accuses Iran of being behind the acts of sabotage and the drone attack in May - gets the backing of Arab leaders in its standoff with Tehran at summits organised by Riyadh.

Iran accuses Riyadh of 'sowing division'.

Inferno: A fire rages on board the oil tanker MT Front Altair after it was hit by an explosion in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday, in what has been described as a torpedo attack 

June 6: The UAE says a multinational investigation into the sabotage attacks point to the likelihood a state was behind them, without incriminating Iran.

June 12: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives in Tehran in a bid to mediate between Washington and Tehran.

A Yemeni rebel missile attack on an airport at Abha, in southwestern Saudi Arabia, wounds 26 civilians. The Saudis accuse Iran of supplying the weapon. 

June 13: Two tankers, Norwegian and Japanese, are hit by explosions in apparent attacks in the Gulf of Oman.

The U.S. Fifth Fleet says that it received two separate distress calls from the tankers in a 'reported attack'. 

Foreign Minister Zarif says the tanker 'attacks' as Abe visits are 'suspicious'.

Mr Abe meets Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who tells him: 'I don't consider Trump as a person worthy of exchanging messages with. I have no response for him and will not answer him.'   

Mike Pompeo doubles down on claim that intelligence community agrees Iran is to blame for attack on oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday morning that the intelligence community agrees Iran is to blame for the attack on oil tanker ships in the Gulf of Oman this week.

'I wouldn't have said it if the intelligence community hadn't become convinced that this was the case,' Pompeo told CBS on Face the Nation Sunday morning, following speculation that there was not enough proof that Iran was responsible for the attack.

'I will concede there are countries that just wish this would go away, and they want to act in a way that is counterfactual,' Pompeo added in reference to the German Foreign Minister saying the video was not enough proof.

The secretary said that there is no disputing Iran is acting in a way to deny other countries the right to use the international waterway.  

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo doubled-down that the intelligence community is confident Iran is behind the attack on two oil tankers near the Persian Gulf on Thursday

'No one disputes that this is the Islamic Republic of Iran taking these actions to deny this international waterway and the freedom of navigation that is a fundamental right of every country to travel through that,' he continued.   

Pompeo came out on Thursday and said the U.S. believes Iran was responsible for attacks that damaged two oil tankers near the Persian Gulf. American forces also found an unexploded mine on one of the damaged vessels. 

A fireball erupted on the Norwegian-owned MT Front Altair after a suspected torpedo attack caused three explosions, forcing the crew to abandon ship. 

Sailors on the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous also had to flee after it was hit by another explosion, in a pair of apparent attacks which left the Middle East on high alert.

'It is the assessment of the United States government that the Islamic Republic of Iran is responsible for the attacks that occurred in the Gulf of Oman today,' Pompeo told reporters at the State Department. 

'This assessment is based on intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to executive the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping, and the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication.'

 Pompeo said that everyone agrees this is an action by Iran to deny other nation's use of the international waterway in the Gulf of Oman

Britain has urged 'extreme caution' amid spiralling tensions in the region, weeks after Saudi tankers were attacked in a mysterious act of sabotage off the UAE coast which Washington believes was the work of Iran

Warning that the Gulf's waters are 'becoming unsafe', tanker industry chief Paolo d'Amico said that 'the oil supply to the entire Western world could be at risk' - as 30 per cent of the world's crude oil passes through the area. 

Tehran has said it is 'suspicious' about the timing of the explosions during a visit by Japan's leader Shinzo Abe but Washington has again pointed the finger at Iran.  

In the aftermath of the attacks U.S. authorities said Iran was 'highly likely' to have caused the explosions - amid fears that repeated attacks on ships could put the West's oil supply under threat.  

Pompeo later said at a news conference in Washington that the attacks on the ships are part of a 'campaign' of 'escalating tension' by Iran and a threat to international peace and security.

He said the United States will defend its forces and interests in the region but gave no specifics about any plans and he took no questions from the media.

In the early hours of this morning, two vessels transiting through the Strait of Hormuz towards the Indian Ocean caught fire.

What happened to the two tankers in the Gulf of Oman? 

Panama-registered tanker Kokuka Courageous was damaged in a 'suspected attack' that breached the hull above the water line. 

The ship was attacked twice in three hours before all the crew were evacuated, the firm said.  

All of its crew are reported safe with one minor injury. 

There was an engine room fire on the tanker, which was carrying methanol from Saudi Arabia to Singapore.  

A second ship, the Front Altair, was 'suspected of being hit by a torpedo'. 

Its Norwegian owner said it was still afloat, denying Iranian claims it had sunk.  

It was travelling from Ruwais, United Arab Emirates, to Taiwan, according to trade sources. 

All 44 sailors from the two ships have been rescued by Iranian search and rescue teams, Tehran's Islamic Republic News Agency. 

The Bahrain-based U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet said it was assisting after receiving distress calls. 

Oil prices surged by four per cent on the news.  

The ships were struck in the same strategic sea lane where four oil vessels were sabotaged last month in attacks Washington blamed on Tehran.

The USS Bainbridge, which had been deployed to the area to offer assistance, reported that crew members saw an unexploded limpet mine on the side of one of the attacked ships.

Magnetic limpet mines are suspected of being used in the May 12 attacks on four tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.

After an investigation the UAE concluded that a 'state actor' was the most likely culprit with chemical analysis of the debris recovered supposedly revealing that it was 'it was highly likely that limpet mines' were used.

Today a U.S. national security official told CBS News that it was 'highly likely Iran caused these attacks', when asked about the recent incidents.  

In an official response the U.S. ambassador to the UN called the explosions 'unacceptable' while the White House said President Trump has been briefed and American ally Saudi Arabia called it a 'major escalation'.

Iran said the attacks aroused suspicion because they came as Japanese leader Shinzo Abe met the Islamic Republic's supreme leader today in an effort to defuse the crisis. 

'Suspicious doesn't begin to describe what likely transpired this morning,' said Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif. 

Tokyo also revealed that the two tankers had been carrying 'Japan-related cargo'.  

Mr Abe had warned yesterday that the tense Middle East standoff, which has seen furious exchanges between America and Iran, could lead to an 'accidental' war. 

His talks with Iran's supreme leader appeared to take a wrong turn today as the Ayatollah said Tehran would 'never repeat' negotiations with the U.S. However, Abe said Khamenei assured him that Iran has no intention to produce, possess or use nuclear arms.

Tonight President Trump tweeted in response to the Japanese PM's visit that the U.S. was not 'ready' to make a deal with Iran.

He wrote: 'While I very much appreciate P.M. Abe going to Iran to meet with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, I personally feel that it is too soon to even think about making a deal. They are not ready, and neither are we!'

Meanwhile Russia said it was too early to say who was behind the explosions. 

There was also some dispute over who had rescued the 44 sailors, as Iran initially claimed to have taken them to safety but the Japanese owner of Kokuka said the ship's crew were rescued by a Dutch vessel, then taken to a U.S. warship.  

As the political reprisals began, dramatic pictures emerged of the fireball which erupted on the MT Front Altair on Thursday morning. 

'I wouldn't have said it if the intelligence community hadn't become convinced that this was the case,' Pompeo told Face the Nation on Sunday morning 

The Altair's cargo was worth more than $30million, according to estimates from trade sources.  

Meanwhile, a shipping broker said the Kokuka, which flies under Panama's flag, had suffered an explosion after an 'outside attack' which may have involved a magnetic mine. 

The company operating the ship, which was heading to Singapore, said the attack had caused 'damage to the ship's hull starboard side.'

The Kokuka's 21 crew were picked up by the nearby Vessel Coastal Ace, leaving the tanker adrift and empty after an engine room fire.   

One of the crew members was slightly injured in the incident and received first aid on board the Coastal Ace, while the Kokuka's methanol cargo is said to be intact. 

Iran said its search and rescue teams had picked up the 44 sailors from the two ships and taken them to the port of Jask, although the U.S. disputes this.  

Commander Joshua Frey, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy's Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, said his command was 'aware' of a reported incident in the area. 

The fleet received one distress call at 6.12am local time and another one at 7am and the guided-missile destroyer USS Bainbridge offered assistance.

Norway has advised its ships to 'stay well clear of Iranian waters until further notice'. 

The Taiwanese oil refiner which chartered the Marshall Islands-flagged Altair said the ship was 'suspected of being hit by a torpedo'. 

The Marshall Islands are an 'associated state' of the U.S.  

Reports said the Front Altair, travelling from Qatar to Taiwan, had suffered three explosions and caught fire after a 'surface attack'. 

Iranian news agency IRNA claimed that the ship had sunk, but its Norwegian owner Frontline insisted it was still afloat. 

Its crew of 23 were picked up by nearby vessel Hyundai Dubai. The crew was made up of 11 Russians, one Georgian and 11 Filipinos, International Tanker Management said.  

Iran 'tried to shoot down a US drone monitoring the Gulf of Oman tankers attack site but MISSED by a kilometer' 

Iran missed a hit on a US drone watching over the site of the attacked tankers in the Gulf of Oman by 'approximately one kilometer', U.S. Central Command has said.

The MQ-9 had observed the Norwegian Front Altair on fire – which 23 mariners were later rescued from – and a spokesperson said it was likely an attempt to intercept the observation from the incident on Thursday.

'According to our assessment, a modified Iranian SA-7 surface-to-air missile attempted to shoot down a U.S. MQ-9, at 6:45 a.m. local time, June 13, over the Gulf of Oman, to disrupt surveillance of the IRGC attack on the M/T Kokuka Courageous,' CENTCOM's Lt. Col. Earl Brown told ABC News on Saturday.

'The SA-7 was ineffective and its closest point of approach to the MQ-9 was approximately one kilometer. Subsequent analysis indicates that this was a likely attempt to shoot down or otherwise disrupt the MQ-9 surveillance of the IRGC attack on the M/T Kokuka Courageous.'

The United States has accused the Iran Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) of placing mines on the hulls of the Courageous but one did not detonate. 

This week video was shared claiming to be IRGC heading back to retrieve the mine that did not go off.

Iran has denied any involvement. 

On Saturday the men on board the Front Altair were finally on their way home after being flown to the United Arab Emirates. 

They 'departed Iran, from Bandar Abbas airport, and landed at Dubai International Airport at 1830 CET this afternoon', a Saturday statement said.

A Frontline spokesman said the crew, of Russian, Filipino and Georgian nationalities, were well-looked after by Iranian authorities.

Most flew home straight after arrival to Dubai, with the rest traveling on Sunday.

It was two days after they were rescued by Hyundai Dubai after the Front Altair caught fire, sending a thick cloud of black smoke visible even by satellite from space.

Iran demanded they be put in their custody.

The order was reportedly denied when the ship's master contacted the Seoul shipping company's headquarters but the master felt he had to oblige to the Iranian men on small boats. 

It wasn't the first attempt to shoot down a US MQ-9, according to CENTCOM.

Brown stated that another drone over Yemen was successfully targeted by a Houthi SA-6 surface to air missile on June 6.

'The altitude of the engagement indicated an improvement over previous Houthi capability, which we assess was enabled by Iranian assistance,' Brown told ABC News.

The attacks left two tankers in flames, bumping up oil prices and further raising regional tensions triggered by a bitter US-Iran standoff. 

The ships were struck in the same strategic sea lane where four oil vessels were sabotaged last month in attacks Washington blamed on Tehran.

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