By Michelle Wiese Bockmann - May 24, 2012 3:24 AM ET
Iran’s navy helped a U.S.-flagged cargo ship that was attacked by pirates off the United Arab Emirates, according to the vessel’s owner, Maersk Line Ltd.
The Iranian navy was the first to respond to the initial distress call from the Maersk Texas, Kevin Speers, senior director of marketing at Maersk Line, said by phone today. The vessel was attacked by several skiffs and armed guards on board returned fire, the company said in an earlier statement.
The incident happened at about noon northeast of Fujairah, the biggest port in the Middle Eastfor refueling oil tankers, Maersk said. Iran’s navy provided guidance to the crew of the Maersk Texas by radio, Speers said, declining to comment further pending a debriefing.
U.S., U.K., Chinese, French, German and Russian negotiators -- the so-called P5+1 group -- are meeting with Iranian officials in Baghdad today over the Persian Gulf country’s nuclear program. The West suspects Iran’s goal is to develop a weapon, while Iran contends it is for civilian purposes.
The European Union’s counter-piracy force said it had reviewed the incident and determined there was “no case of piracy and it’s a false alarm,” Timo Lange, a spokesman for Northwood, England-based EU Navfor, said by phone today. EU Navfor operates nine warships and five maritime patrol aircraft as part of an operation combating piracy in the region, according to data on its website.
Maersk got its information from the captain of the Maersk Texas and will investigate EU Navfor’s assertion, Speers said.
The Australian frigate HMAS Melbourne was dispatched to help the Maersk Texas, Lieutenant Commander Mark Hankey at Combined Maritime Forces in Bahrain said by phone. The command is headed by Vice Admiral Mark Fox, leader of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
The warship launched a helicopter that proceeded to the merchant vessel, which had exchanged gunfire with a skiff located within a group of about 20 boats, according to Hankey. The task force has yet to assess whether pirates were in any of the skiffs, he said. The Gulf of Oman, which Fujairah faces, is noted for fishing and smuggling activity, Hankey said.
Speers said the crew of Maersk Texas was unharmed and there were no signs of injuries to the pirates. The attackers fled the scene shortly after they were thwarted, according to Speers, who said the vessel had just passed through the Strait of Hormuz and was heading for the U.S.
Iran is one of 25 countries deploying warships to protect against piracy off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden, according to Aliakbar Marzban, a London-based Iranian diplomat. Two hijacked vessels were seized and 21 pirates arrested in rescue operations staged by Iran’s navy in March and April, he said in an e-mailed statement May 22.
Fujairah is close to the Strait of Hormuz, a transit point for about a fifth of the world’s globally traded oil.