'Drone attack' blamed for Iran tanker fire off Syria
It was not clear who carried out the attack but three casualties were reported, including two crew members, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
"We don't know if this was an Israeli attack," Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP of Saturday's assault.
"The Iranian tanker came from Iran and was not far from Banias port," he added.
It was not clear either if a drone or a missile was used in the attack, the Observatory said.
State news agency SANA, quoting the oil ministry, said the fire erupted after "what was believed to be an attack by a drone from the direction of Lebanese waters". The flames were later extinguished.
In a report published last month that cited US and Middle East officials, the Wall Street Journal said Israel had targeted at least a dozen vessels bound for Syria and mostly carrying Iranian oil since late 2019.
Hundreds of Israeli air strikes have also struck Syria since the war began in 2011, mostly targeting Damascus regime allies from Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement and Syrian government troops.
The Banias oil refinery is located in the regime-controlled coastal province of Tartus.
"It's the first such attack on an oil tanker, but the Banias terminal has been targeted in the past," Abdel Rahman said.
Early last year, Damascus said divers had planted explosives on offshore pipelines of the Banias refinery but the damage had not halted operations.
And in February 2020, four oil and gas sites in the central province of Homs were attacked by armed drones, sparking fires and causing material damage.
Saturday's attack comes days after a Syrian officer was killed and three soldiers wounded in strikes launched by Israel after a missile was fired towards a secretive nuclear site in the Jewish state.
The Israeli army said at the time that a surface-to-air missile had been fired from Syria toward the southern Negev desert, where the Dimona nuclear reactor is located.
Israel is considered the leading military power in the Middle East and is widely believed to possess its sole nuclear arsenal.
It has never disclosed its atomic arsenal, but foreign experts say the Jewish state has between 100 to 300 nuclear warheads.
There were no immediate reports of any casualties or damage on the Israeli side.
Israel has long sought to prevent bitter foe Iran from establishing itself in war-torn Syria.
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Before Syria's war, the country enjoyed relative energy autonomy, but production has plummeted during the war, pushing the government to rely on importing hydrocarbons.
Western sanctions on oil shipping, as well as US punitive measures against Iran, have complicated these imports.
Pre-war production was 400,000 barrels per day (bpd) in Syria.
But it stood at just 89,000 bpd in 2020, Syria's oil minister said in February, of which up to 80,000 came from Kurdish areas outside government control.
Agencies contributed to this report.