The Mercer Street  oil products tanker
The Mercer Street vessel was struck in the early hours of Friday in the northern Indian Ocean, said Zodiac Maritime © Johan Victor/AP

A British maritime security guard and a Romanian crew member have been killed in a suspected drone attack on an oil tanker near Oman, in an escalation of the threat to vessels passing through one of the world’s most important trade routes.

The Mercer Street oil products tanker, which is linked to Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer, was struck in the early hours of Friday morning in the northern Indian Ocean, said Zodiac Maritime, his UK-based company that manages the vessel.

The two deaths mark a significant escalation of the risks to vessels transiting a route that roughly a third of the world’s oil supplies pass near to every day. There have been a series of incidents in recent months that maritime security experts have blamed on both Iran and Israel targeting vessels linked to either country.

Ambrey, the world’s largest provider of maritime security guards, said in a statement that a member of its team had “tragically been killed in a security incident” aboard the ship, without elaborating on the circumstances behind the attack.

Map showing tanker attack near island of Masirah, Oman

Three people familiar with the incident said they believed it was a drone attack, but emphasised they were still waiting on official confirmation of what had occurred.

A US official told the Financial Times: “It [The vessel] appears to have been attacked by a one-way UAV explosive drone. That’s basically a UAV that is loaded up with explosives and flown into a target and it explodes on contact.”

The official said there were “lots of tell-tale signs” that it came from Iran and added that the ship had hours earlier reported an attempted attack as what appeared to be a drone hit the water 20 metres from the ship.

Naval forces responded to an emergency distress call from the vessel following the attack, US Central Command said on Friday.

“US navy personnel are on the Mercer Street, assisting the vessel’s crew,” Central Command said in the statement, adding that the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan was escorting the vessel, accompanied by Carrier Strike Group 5, and the guided missile destroyer USS Mitscher.

“Initial indications clearly point to a UAV-style attack,” according to the statement, which added that US navy explosives experts were now aboard the vessel to ensure there was no additional danger to the crew.

The Mercer Street tanker had been regularly travelling between east Africa and the oil hub of Fujairah in the UAE in recent months, according to satellite tracking data.

The attack comes at a time of escalated tensions in the region as negotiations with world powers over a nuclear deal with Tehran are on hold.

A UK government spokesperson confirmed they were aware of the incident and said “UK military headquarters in the region are currently conducting investigations”.

In an earlier statement, Zodiac Maritime said the incident was “suspected piracy” but the UK Maritime Trade Operations, an information arm of the Royal Navy, and the Maritime Security Centre — Horn of Africa (MSC-HOA) both denied that.

Personnel on board a ship within five nautical miles of the Mercer Street at the time of the attack received a very-high frequency transmission from the tanker reporting that it was a drone, according to a person familiar with the matter.

MSC-HOA said the report of the attack came “after another report of a sighting of what seemed to be an unmanned aerial vehicle falling in flares into the water, but both incidents cannot be correlated at the moment”. It advised vessels to “exercise extreme caution” if travelling through the area.

Munro Anderson, founding partner of Dryad Global, a maritime security analysis firm, said that the incident was likely to be an unmanned aerial vehicle sent by Iran.

“Whilst a number of details remain unconfirmed, this latest attack has the hallmarks of the ongoing Israel-Iran ‘shadow war’ that has seen an exchange in attacks against vessels associated with each state,” he said in a report.

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