Iran says it has seized British oil tanker
Stena Impero

Iran's Revolutionary Guards said on Friday they had captured a British-flagged oil tanker in the Gulf after Britain seized an Iranian vessel earlier this month, further raising tensions along a vital international oil shipping route.

Britain said it was urgently seeking information about the Stena Impero after the tanker, which had been heading to a port in Saudi Arabia, suddenly changed course after passing through the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf.

The Revolutionary Guards said they seized the tanker at the request of Iranian maritime authorities for "not following international maritime regulations," state television reported.

An anonymous military source told Iranian state news agency IRNA that the British tanker had "turned off its tracker and ignored several warnings by the Revolutionary Guards before being captured". 

Relations between Iran and the West have been increasingly strained since British naval forces seized an Iranian tanker in Gibraltar on July 4 on suspicion of smuggling oil to Syria in breach of European Union sanctions.

Iran said it would retaliate and days later three Iranian vessels tried to block a British-owned tanker passing through the Strait of Hormuz. But on that occasion, the Iranian vessels backed off when confronted by a British Royal Navy warship.

"We are urgently seeking further information and assessing the situation following reports of an incident in the Gulf," a spokesman for Britain's Ministry of Defence said on Friday.

A person familiar with the matter said a meeting of the British government's emergency committee was being held.

Refinitiv data showed the Stena Impero was a British-flagged vessel owned by Stena Bulk. It showed the vessel's destination as the Saudi port of Jubail on the Gulf.

The operator of the Stena Impero said that it was unable to contact the ship, which has 23 crewmembers aboard. Stena Bulk and North Marine Management said in a statement that the vessel was “approached by unidentified small crafts and a helicopter during transit of the Strait of Hormuz while the vessel was in international waters”.

The map tracking the ship's course showed it veering off course with a sharp turn north at about 1517 GMT on Friday and heading towards the Iranian coast.

The US condemned what it called “escalatory violence” by Iran. US President Donald Trump said that the U.S. would talk to Britain about the incident.

The seizure of the vessel comes just hours after Gibraltar’s Supreme Court announced that it would extend the detention of an Iranian oil tanker by a month. It was taken two weeks ago on the allegations that it was violating international sanctions by heading to Syria to sell oil.

It also comes at a time of soaring tensions between the US and Iran, after Trump insisted that US military had downed an Iranian drone, which Tehran flatly denies.

Iran’s Supreme Leader has accused Britain of hewing to the US’ position on Iran, which is “tantamount to maritime banditry”.