DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A remotely piloted boat packed with explosives targeted the Saudi port of Yanbu in the Red Sea on Tuesday, the kingdom said, with the blast sending black smoke into the sky off the coast.
Saudi Arabia claimed to have intercepted and destroyed the attack boat. However, private security firms suggested commercial traffic near the port may have been hit in the assault.
Details remained scarce, but the incident comes after a series of attacks on shipping in the wider Mideast 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 yearslong 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.
The state-run Saudi Press Agency quoted Saudi military spokesman Col. 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 to support 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 Tuesday morning, smoke was seen rising from a vessel off the Saudi oil-shipping port of 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.
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 Tuesday. Footage released by the Navy showed a ship commanded by Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard cutting in front of the USCGC Monomoy, causing the Coast Guard vessel to come to an abrupt stop with its engine smoking on April 2.
The Guard also did the same with another Coast Guard vessel, the USCGC Wrangell, said Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich, a 5th Fleet spokeswoman. Such close passes risk the ships colliding at sea.
The incident came as Iran negotiates with world powers in Vienna over Tehran and Washington returning to the 2015 nuclear deal, talks due to resume 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.