WASHINGTON: US Navy ships will start accompanying US-flagged commercial vessels passing through the Strait of Hormuz after Iran's seizure of a Marshall Islands-flagged vessel two days ago, a US defense official said on Thursday.
The official said the measure was expected to be in force for a limited time and was measured, adding ships would not be "escorting" the American vessels but only keeping them within eyeshot. Navy vessels already in the area would be tasked with the job, the official added.
Iranian forces boarded a Marshall Islands-flagged cargo ship in the Gulf on Tuesday after patrol boats fired warning shots across its bow and ordered it deeper into Iranian waters, the Pentagon said.
US planes and a destroyer were monitoring the situation after the vessel, the MV Maersk Tigris, made a distress call in the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world's most important oil shipping channels.
Iran's Tasnim news agency quoted an unidentified source who sought to play down the incident, saying it was a civil matter with no military or political dimension. But the Pentagon described it as an apparent provocation.
The incident came as the United States and five other global powers aim to secure a final nuclear deal with Iran by the end of June.
Under the accord Tehran, which denies seeking to build nuclear weapons, would win sanctions relief in return for slashing the number of its uranium enrichment centrifuges and accepting intrusive international inspections.
Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television earlier said an Iranian force fired on and seized a US cargo ship with 34 US sailors on board, and directed it to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. But the Pentagon spokesperson said there were no US citizens on board the ship.
The company managing the vessel told a Danish news channel that there were 24 crew members, mostly from eastern Europe and Asia.
Reuters tracking data showed the Maersk Tigris, a 65,000-tonne container ship, off the Iranian coast between the islands of Qeshm and Hormuz. It had been listed as sailing from the Saudi port of Jeddah, bound for the United Arab Emirates port of Jebel Ali.
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