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US says Iran seized and then released American sea drone in Persian Gulf

Spokesman for US Navy’s 5th Fleet says IRGC ship began towing Saildrone Explorer, but let it go following repeated calls

This photo released by the US Navy shows the Iranian Revolutionary Guard ship Shahid Bazair, left, towing a US Navy Saildrone Explorer in the Persian Gulf on August 30, 2022. (US Navy via AP)
This photo released by the US Navy shows the Iranian Revolutionary Guard ship Shahid Bazair, left, towing a US Navy Saildrone Explorer in the Persian Gulf on August 30, 2022. (US Navy via AP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard seized an American sea drone Tuesday in the Persian Gulf and tried to tow it away, only releasing the unmanned vessel when a US Navy warship and helicopter approached, officials said.

The incident marks the first time the Navy’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet’s new drone task force has been targeted by Iran.

While the interception ended without incident, tensions remain high between Washington and Tehran as negotiations over the Islamic Republic’s tattered nuclear deal with world powers hang in the balance.

The Guard’s Shahid Baziar warship attached a line to the Saildrone Explorer in the central part of the Persian Gulf in international waters late Monday night, said Cmdr. Timothy Hawkins, a 5th Fleet spokesman. The vessel then began towing the Saildrone Explorer, which carries cameras, radars and sensors for remotely monitoring the sea, Hawkins said.

The USS Thunderbolt, a Navy coastal patrol boat, as well as an MH-60 Seahawk helicopter, moved to shadow the Guard’s ship. The Navy called the Shahid Baziar by radio to identify the drone as American, Hawkins said.

“Our response was one that as such made clear that this was US government property and was operating in international waters and that we had every intention to take action if necessary,” the commander told The Associated Press.

In this image provided by the US Navy, an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy fast in-shore attack craft, a type of speedboat armed with machine guns, speeds near US naval vessels transiting the Strait of Hormuz, on May 10, 2021. (US Navy via AP)

Hawkins said the incident ended peacefully after some four hours as the Iranians unhooked the tow line to the drone and left the area as the American forces were nearby.

US Army Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, who leads the military’s Central Command, praised the Thunderbolt’s crew for its response.

“This incident once again demonstrates Iran’s continued destabilizing, illegal and unprofessional activity in the Middle East,” he said in a statement

The IRGC did not acknowledge the incident. Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The 5th Fleet launched its unmanned Task Force 59 last year. The 5th Fleet’s area of responsibility includes the crucial Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20% of all oil passes.

It also stretches as far as the Red Sea reaches near the Suez Canal, the waterway in Egypt linking the Mideast to the Mediterranean, and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait off Yemen.

It also represents a region that has seen a series of at-sea attacks in recent years. Off Yemen, bomb-laden drone boats and mines set adrift by Yemen’s Houthi rebels have damaged vessels amid that country’s yearslong war. Near the United Arab Emirates and the Strait of Hormuz, oil tankers have been seized by Iranian forces. Others have been attacked in incidents the Navy blames on Iran.

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