Both the mariners' recollection and the physical evidence remaining on the MT Front Altair and the Kokuka Courageous, now off the coast of Fujairah, will play an important role in determining who the international community blames for Thursday's explosions on board the oil tankers.
Already, the U.S. has blamed Iran for what it described as an attack with limpet mines on the two tankers, pointing to black-and-white footage it captured that American officials describe as Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops removing an unexploded mine from the Kokuka Courageous.
Tehran rejects the allegation, instead accusing the U.S. under President Donald Trump of pursuing an "Iranophobic" campaign against it. However, Iran previously used mines against oil tankers in 1987 and 1988 in the "Tanker War," which saw the U.S. Navy escort ships through the region — something American officials may consider doing again.
In a new allegation Saturday, the U.S. military accused Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops of trying but failing to shoot down a U.S. drone to disrupt surveillance of the tankers during the attacks. All this comes after four other oil tankers off Fujairah suffered similar attacks in recent weeks, and Iranian-allied rebels from Yemen have struck U.S. ally Saudi Arabia with drones and missiles.
Late Saturday, Yemen's Iranian-backed Houthi rebels claimed a new drone attack targeting Saudi Arabia, the latest in their recent campaign that has stepped up amid the Mideast tensions. Yahia al-Sarie, a Houthi spokesman, said their drones targeted airports in Jizan and Abha in Saudi Arabia. Early Sunday, the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen said it shot down a drone near the Abha regional airport, but did not acknowledge the Jizan claim.
The Houthis say they launched a cruise missile that struck the Abha airport Wednesday, an attack Saudi Arabia says wounded 26 people. Trump withdrew America last year from the 2015 nuclear deal that Iran reached with world powers and recently imposed a series of sanctions now squeezing its beleaguered economy and cutting deeply into its oil exports. While Iran maintains it has nothing to do with the recent attacks, its leaders repeatedly have threatened to close the vital Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world's oil flows.
On Saturday, Associated Press journalists saw the crew members of Front Altair after their Iran Air flight from Bandar Abbas, Iran, landed at Dubai International Airport. Ten of its 23 mariners walked out to be greeted by officials who earlier could be heard saying the others would be catching connecting flights.
The officials repeatedly refused to identify themselves to journalists. They and the mariners declined to take questions. The Front Altair caught fire after the attack Thursday, sending a thick cloud of black smoke visible even by satellite from space. A passing ship rescued the mariners, who later were turned over to Iranian officials. Iran took the mariners to Jask, then later Bandar Abbas before putting them on the flight Saturday night. Its crew was comprised of 11 Russians, 11 Filipinos and one Georgian.
Meanwhile on Saturday, the Kokuka Courageous arrived off the coast of Fujairah. Journalists in the city could not reach the vessel, as boat captains said authorities instructed them not to go near the stricken vessel.
The Kokuka Courageous is the vessel where Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops were filmed Thursday removing something from the ship's hull. The U.S. military says they removed an unexploded limpet mine, which can be magnetically attached to a vessel. The implication is that Iran wanted to remove any evidence that could link them to the attack. Weapons experts can examine a mine for clues about its manufacturer.
The black-and-white video shared Friday by the U.S. military's Central Command came from an MH-60 Seahawk helicopter, said Cmdr. Joshua Frey, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. Such helicopters carry FLIR cameras. FLIR, or "forward-looking infrared" cameras, which record heat signatures in black and white.
In a statement released Saturday, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command said a U.S. drone had been observing the Front Altair as it was on fire. Several minutes later, Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops fired a modified Iranian SA-7 surface-to-air missile to try to bring down the drone in a likely attempt to disrupt the drone's surveillance of the Kokuka Courageous, Lt . Col. Earl Brown said. Iran did not immediately acknowledge the incident.
Tensions in the Persian Gulf have risen as Iran appears poised to break the nuclear deal, which Trump withdrew America from last year. In the deal, Tehran agreed to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of crippling sanctions. Now, Iran is threatening to resume enriching uranium closer to weapons-grade levels if European nations don't offer it new terms to the deal by July 7.
Already, Iran says it quadrupled its production of low-enriched uranium. Meanwhile, U.S. sanctions have cut off opportunities for Iran to trade its excess uranium and heavy water abroad, putting Tehran on course to violate terms of the nuclear deal regardless.
In May, the U.S. rushed an aircraft carrier strike group and other military assets to the region in response to what it said were threats from Iran. Regardless of who is responsible, the price of a barrel of benchmark Brent crude spiked as much as 4% immediately after the attack Thursday, showing how critical the region remains to the global economy. The Saudi Energy Ministry quoted Minister Khalid al-Falih on Saturday as saying "a rapid and decisive response" was needed to the recent attacks.
Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE's Foreign Minister, also called the May attacks against the four oil tankers off Fujairah as "state-sponsored." He declined to name who the UAE suspected of carrying out the attacks.
Associated Press writer Menelaos Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus, contributed to this report.