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Iran says 19 sailors dead in friendly fire missile hit; others put toll higher

Naval frigate fires anti-ship cruise missile at support boat laying targets during exercises in the Gulf of Oman, amid tensions with the US

In this photo provided Monday, May 11, 2020, by the Iranian Army, the Konarak support vessel which was struck during a training exercise in the Gulf of Oman, is docked in an unidentified naval base in Iran. (Iranian Army via AP)
In this photo provided Monday, May 11, 2020, by the Iranian Army, the Konarak support vessel which was struck during a training exercise in the Gulf of Oman, is docked in an unidentified naval base in Iran. (Iranian Army via AP)

Nineteen sailors were killed and a further 15 were wounded when an Iranian missile fired during a training exercise in the Gulf of Oman struck a support vessel near its target, the Iranian army said Monday, amid heightened tensions between Tehran and the US.

“On Sunday afternoon, during an exercise by a number of the navy’s vessels in Jask and Chabahar waters, the Konarak light support vessel had an accident,” said a statement on the army’s website.

“The number of this accident’s martyrs is 19 and 15 have also been injured,” it added, saying the vessel had been towed ashore.

The statement significantly raised the death toll in Sunday’s incident from what was reported just hours earlier, when Iran’s state media said at least one sailor was killed.

However, local Gulf reports said that up to 40 sailors were dead and several more wounded.

Videos posted on social media purported to show injured sailors being rescued and taken for treatment.

The Konarak, a Hendijan-class support ship, which was taking part in the exercise, was too close to a target during an exercise when the incident happened, the reports said. The vessel had been putting targets out for other ships to aim at. The media said the missile struck the vessel accidentally.

The friendly fire incident happened near the port of Jask, some 1,270 kilometers (790 miles) southeast of Tehran, in the Gulf of Oman, state TV said.

A local hospital admitted 12 sailors and treated another three with slight wounds, the state-run IRNA news agency reported.

Iranian media said the Konarak had been overhauled in 2018 and was able to launch sea and anti-ship missiles. The Dutch-made, 47-meter (155-foot) vessel was in service since 1988 and had a capacity of 40 tons. It usually carries a crew of 20 sailors.

Iran regularly holds exercises in the region, which is closed to the strategic Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20 percent of the world’s oil passes. The US Navy’s 5th Fleet, which monitors the region, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

US Marines monitor an Iranian navy vessel from the USS John P. Murtha in the Strait of Hormuz, August 12, 2019. (US Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Donald Holbert/Released)

This incident comes amid months of heightened tensions between Iran and the US since President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers in 2018 and imposed crushing sanctions on the country.

Last month Trump said he had ordered the US military to attack and destroy any Iranian vessel that harasses US Navy ships.

The order came one week after 11 small armed Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps speedboats swarmed around US Navy and Coast Guard ships in international waters in the northern Gulf.

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