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British navy to escort UK-flagged ships in Strait of Hormuz

Britain seized an Iranian ship off the coast of Gibraltar earlier this month [Getty]

Date of publication: 25 July, 2019

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The British defence ministry said UK-flagged ships would be escorted by the navy through the Strait of Hormuz, where a ship was seized by Iran earlier this month.

The UK on Thursday ordered its navy to escort UK-flagged ships through the Strait of Hormuz after Iranian soldiers seized a tanker in the flashpoint entrance to the Gulf.

"The Royal Navy has been tasked to accompany British-flagged ships through the Strait of Hormuz, either individually or in groups, should sufficient notice be given of their passage," the defence ministry said in a statement to AFP.

The week-long standoff over the British-flagged Stena Impero and its 23-member crew has inflamed tensions between the Islamic Republic and the United Kingdom.

On Monday, the UK responded by proposing a European-led mission that could secure the passage of vessels through the world's busiest oil shipping lane. 

But France on Thursday said it was not willing to send extra military assets to the Gulf, but would share information and coordinate its currently deployed assets.

Iran had earlier warned the UK that it intended to retaliate for British marines' involvement of the seizure of its own supertanker near Gibraltar on 4 July.

The UK currently has the HMS Montrose warship in the Gulf and a handful of smaller naval vessels.

The Montrose had tried to rush in to rescue the Stena but arrived too late to the scene.

UK ships cautioned

The UK has already raised its security level in the region to the highest level and advised all boats in Iranian waters not to enter the strait.

Its guidance before Thursday was for ships to notify the navy and receive instructions on "the safest way to transit" into the Gulf.

"It is not possible for the Royal Navy to provide escorts for every single ship," now-former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt told parliament on Monday.

The UK department of transport had earlier advised British-registered ships not to sail through the area.

Hunt told parliament that two to three UK-flagged ships pass through the strait daily.

He added that the Montrose had escorted 30 merchant vessels through the strait in 17 separate transits as of Monday.

The 33-kilometre (22-mile) wide passageway provides the eastern entrance and exit point into the Gulf and runs between the UAE and Iran.

US patrol

Threats to navigation in the Gulf have become an international issue in recent months as Iran has responded to increased US economic sanctions that have strangled its oil exports.

Similar moves were taken by Washington on Wednesday when the newly-installed defence secretary said the US military intends to protect American commercial ships in the straight but will not provide naval escorts in every case.

The aim of the US naval and air presence in the Gulf area is to deter Iran from threatening to stop or seize any American commercial ship, Mark Esper told reporters on his first full day as Pentagon chief.

US Central Command said it began extra US aerial patrols. Also last week, the US Navy said it destroyed one, and possibly two, Iranian drones that had made what the Navy called threatening moves against the USS Boxer in the Strait.

Esper said he would travel next week to the Florida headquarters of Central Command, which is responsible for military operations across the Middle East, including in the Gulf region.

Asked by a reporter whether the US will escort commercial ships as they transit the Strait of Hormuz to or from the Gulf or the Gulf of Oman, Esper noted that the British navy already has begun providing added naval security for British vessels.

"We will escort our ships to the degree that the risk demands it," Esper said.

Pressed to elaborate, Esper said he was not announcing that the US will be escorting all US commercial ships in or around the Gulf.

To the degree US vessels need escort, we will be there, we will be available to them," he said. "I use 'escort' broadly. 'Escort' doesn't mean" a warship would be sailing "right behind" a commercial vessel.

"What I mean by it is, as I said, to the degree that circumstances warrant, that we think that maybe a US ship may be under some type of threat ... (of) being stopped or being seized, then we would want to make sure we have the capacity to make sure that doesn't happen."

The Trump administration is seeking to build an international coalition to monitor and potentially escort commercial vessels in the Strait of Hormuz and other vulnerable waterways in the Middle East as a way of deterring Iranian provocations.

Called "Operation Sentinel," the plan has thus far attracted few, if any, commitments from other nations.

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