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Tuesday February 25th, 2020 6:19AM

UAE says 4 ships targeted by 'sabotage' off its east coast

By The Associated Press
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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The United Arab Emirates said Sunday that four commercial ships off its eastern coast "were subjected to sabotage operations," just hours after Iranian and Lebanese media outlets aired false reports of explosions at a nearby Emirati port.

Emirati officials declined to elaborate on the nature of the sabotage or say who might have been responsible. However, the reported incident comes as the U.S. has warned ships that "Iran or its proxies" could be targeting maritime traffic in the region, and as America is deploying an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf to counter alleged threats from Tehran.

Tensions have risen in the year since President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, restoring American sanctions that have pushed Iran's economy into crisis. Last week, Iran warned it would begin enriching uranium at higher levels in 60 days if world powers failed to negotiate new terms for the deal.

The statement from the UAE's Foreign Ministry put the ships near the country's territorial waters in the Gulf of Oman, east of the port of Fujairah. It said it was investigating the incident "in cooperation with local and international bodies." It said there were "no injuries or fatalities on board the vessels" and "no spillage of harmful chemicals or fuel."

The U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, which oversees the region, did not immediately offer comment on the incident. Emirati officials declined to elaborate while their investigation is ongoing.

Earlier Sunday, Lebanon's pro-Iran satellite channel Al-Mayadeen, quoting "Gulf sources," falsely reported that a series of explosions had struck Fujairah's port. State and semi-official media in Iran picked up the report from Al-Mayadeen, which later published the names of vessels it claimed were involved in the incident.

The Associated Press, after speaking to Emirati officials and local witnesses, found the report about explosions at the port to be unsubstantiated.

Fujairah's port is located about 140 kilometers (85 miles) from the Strait of Hormuz, through which a third of all oil at sea is traded. The facility handles oil for bunkering and shipping, as well as general and bulk cargo. It is seen as strategically located, serving shipping routes in the Persian Gulf, the Indian subcontinent and Africa.

The reported sabotage incident comes after the U.S. Maritime Administration warned Thursday that Iran could target commercial sea traffic.

"Since early May, there is an increased possibility that Iran and/or its regional proxies could take action against U.S. and partner interests, including oil production infrastructure, after recently threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz," the warning read. "Iran or its proxies could respond by targeting commercial vessels, including oil tankers, or U.S. military vessels in the Red Sea, Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, or the Persian Gulf."

It's unclear if that is the same perceived threat that prompted the White House to order the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group and B-52 bombers to the region on May 4.

___

Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy in Dubai and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

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