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UK News Desk

‘Critical’ security alert for UK ships sailing near Iran

Britain has raised the security level for British-flagged ships passing through Iranian waters in the Gulf to its highest level, Sky News understands.

The Department for Transport lifted the security code for commercial tankers and other vessels to level three – which is “critical” – in the early hours of Tuesday.

It means ships are advised to avoid Iranian territorial waters if possible or minimise their exposure while passing through the Strait of Hormuz and elsewhere along the coast.

British-flagged ships have been advised to keep alert for Iranian patrol boats “being aggressive towards them”, a maritime source said.

Three Iranian boats tried to stop a British oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz
Image: The ships’ stand-off happened in the Strait of Hormuz

It comes as police in Gibraltar arrested the captain and the chief officer of the Grace 1, the Iranian supertanker which was boarded by Royal Marines amid suspicion it was taking crude oil to Syria, in breach of EU sanctions.

Police say they have been interviewed but not charged. The investigation is ongoing and the Grace 1 is still detained.

A Royal Gibraltar Police spokesman said: “As part of the ongoing investigation which led to the detention of the VCCL Grace 1 last week, the master and chief officer of the said vessel have been arrested today in relation to breaches of European Union Regulations 36/2012 concerning restrictive measures in view of the situation in Syria.

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“This follows a protracted search of the vessel where documents and electronic devices have been seized and examined.”

A shipping industry source said his vessels are increasing the number of watch keepers on deck while close to Iran, trying to move through the Strait of Hormuz during daylight hours and travelling at a faster pace than usual to keep safe.

HMS Montrose provided added protection to the tanker. File pic
Image: HMS Montrose deployed its helicopter when it was confronted

A Department for Transport spokeswoman said: “The Department for Transport, as competent authority, regularly provides Security Advice to UK and Red Ensign Group Shipping on how they should operate in areas of high risk.”

Some 15 to 30 British-flagged tankers and other large ships are in the Persian Gulf on a daily basis. At least one to three pass through the Strait of Hormuz every 24 hours.

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US President Donald Trump tweeted on Thursday afternoon, quoting a talk show host who said: “It seems that the Brits and the French and the Germans are coming around to the idea that the Iranians are up to no good.”

It comes after three Iranian boats tried to stop a British oil tanker in the strait.

Donald Trump
Image: Donald Trump tweeted that Britons were ‘coming around to the idea that the Iranians are up to no good’

HMS Montrose, a British warship operating in the area, then gave a warning and deployed its helicopter, a wildcat, which circled the Iranians, before their boats withdrew.

A government spokesman said: “We are concerned by this action and continue to urge the Iranian authorities to de-escalate the situation in the region.”

However, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard denied claims of a confrontation, saying: “There were no clashes with alien boats, especially English boats.”

Tensions have been rising since Royal Marines helped seize the Iranian-flagged tanker off Gibraltar.

The capture of Grace 1 prompted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to warn the UK of “consequences”.

“You [Britain] are the initiator of insecurity and you will realise the consequences later,” Rouhani said after a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, according to the semi-official news agency Tasnim.

Brigadier General Amir Hatami also warned the UK its actions “will not go without a response”.

Royal Marines have boarded an oil tanker on its way to Syria thought to be breaching EU sanctions,
Gibraltar detains oil tanker bound for Syria

The US has been leading a push for allies and other tankers that use the Strait of Hormuz to increase their maritime security in the region, safeguarding strategic waters off Iran and Yemen.

It alleges that Tehran was behind attacks on six oil tankers in the area.

Relations between the two countries have fractured since Mr Trump pulled the US out of a nuclear deal with Iran and re-imposed sanctions.

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