UK joins Israel saying Iran attacked tanker; Tehran continues to deny involvement

Calling it a “unlawful and callous attack,” British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said his country and its allies planned a coordinated response over the strike on the tanker. (AFP/File Photo)
Calling it a “unlawful and callous attack,” British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said his country and its allies planned a coordinated response over the strike on the tanker. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 01 August 2021

UK joins Israel saying Iran attacked tanker; Tehran continues to deny involvement

Calling it a “unlawful and callous attack,” British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said his country and its allies planned a coordinated response over the strike on the tanker. (AFP/File Photo)
  • The blast killed two crew members, one British and another from Romania
  • FM Raab said it was “highly likely” Iran attacked the tanker with one or more drones

LONDON: The UK joined Israel on Sunday in alleging Iran carried out a fatal drone strike on an oil tanker off the coast of Oman in the Arabian Sea, putting further pressure on Tehran as it denied being involved in the assault.

Calling it a “unlawful and callous attack,” British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said his country and its allies planned a coordinated response over the strike Thursday night on the oil tanker Mercer Street. It marked the first-known fatal attack after years of assaults on commercial shipping in the region linked to tensions with Iran over its tattered nuclear deal.

While no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, Iran and its militia allies have used so-called “suicide” drones in attacks previously, which crash into targets and detonate their explosive payloads. However, Israel, the UK and the responding US Navy have yet to show physical evidence from the strike or offer intelligence information on why they blame Tehran.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett went further than Raab in remarks Sunday at a Cabinet meeting, making a point to stare directly into the camera and slowly warn: “We know, at any rate, know how to convey the message to Iran in our own way.”

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Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Sunday Israel had “evidence” Iran was behind the deadly tanker attack off Oman despite its denials, and warned his country could “send a message” in retaliation. More here.

The drone attack blasted a hole through the top of the oil tanker’s bridge, where the captain and crew command the vessel, a US official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as an investigation into the attack still was ongoing. The blast killed two crew members from the United Kingdom and Romania.

The Navy said the American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and the guided missile destroyer USS Mitscher escorted the Mercer Street as it headed to a safe port. On Sunday, satellite-tracking information from MarineTraffic.com showed the tanker stopped off the coast of Fujairah in the UAE.

In his statement, Raab said it was “highly likely” Iran attacked the tanker with one or more drones.

“We believe this attack was deliberate, targeted and a clear violation of international law by Iran,” he said. “Iran must end such attacks, and vessels must be allowed to navigate freely in accordance with international law.”

From Jerusalem, Bennett offered condolences to both the United Kingdom and Romania for the killing of their citizens. He said Israeli intelligence had evidence linking Iran to the attack, but did not offer it.

“Iran is the one who carried out the attack against the ship,” he said. “Iran’s aggressive behavior is dangerous not only for Israel, but harms global interests in the freedom of navigation and international trade.”

Earlier, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh described the allegation Iran carried out the attack as “baseless.”

“It’s not the first time that the Zionist regime occupying Jerusalem has made such empty accusations against the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Khatibzadeh said. “Wherever this regime has gone, it has taken instability, terror and violence with it.”

He added: “Whoever sows the wind shall reap the whirlwind.”

Other Israel-linked ships have been targeted in recent months as well amid a shadow war between the two nations, with Israeli officials blaming the Islamic Republic for the assaults. Shipping in the region began being targeted in the summer of 2019, about a year after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers.

The Mercer Street, owned by Japan’s Taihei Kaiun Co., is managed by London-based Zodiac Maritime, part of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group. In early July, the Liberian-flagged container ship CSAV Tyndall, once tied to Zodiac Maritime, suffered an unexplained explosion on board while in the northern Indian Ocean, according to the US Maritime Administration.

The attack marks the first major confrontation with Iran for Bennett, who took over as premier in June after a coalition deal unseated Israel’s long-serving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu is suspected of launching a series of attacks targeting Iran, including explosions at the country’s main enrichment site and the killing of a prominent military nuclear scientist.

However, Bennett as well has made hawkish comments in the past about needing to attack “the head of the octopus” in Tehran as opposed to Iran’s regional militias like Hezbollah in Lebanon. The attack on the Mercer Street marks the first during his time as prime minister and analysts suggest he could seek a major attack in retaliation.

“Israel may wish to deliver a resounding blow; that’s the spirit of political sources’ comments in Jerusalem,” wrote Amos Harel, a longtime military analyst for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “This blow will be aimed at ending things without a tit-for-tat that could escalate. But as usual, events also depend on the other side.”


Vladimir Putin’s party set to retain Russian parliament majority after polls

Vladimir Putin’s party set to retain Russian parliament majority after polls
Updated 14 sec ago

Vladimir Putin’s party set to retain Russian parliament majority after polls

Vladimir Putin’s party set to retain Russian parliament majority after polls
  • The vote comes in the wake of an unprecedented crackdown on the opposition this year
MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s party was set Sunday to retain a majority in parliament on the last day of three-day elections in which most Kremlin critics were barred from running.
The vote comes in the wake of an unprecedented crackdown on the opposition this year, with Russian authorities jailing Putin’s best-known domestic foe Alexei Navalny and banning his organizations as “extremist.”
In the lead-up to this weekend’s vote, all of his top allies were arrested or had fled the country, with anyone associated with his groups kept from running in the parliamentary and local polls scheduled to close at 8:00 p.m. Sunday.
“These essentially aren’t elections. People in effect have no choice,” 43-year-old businessman Vladimir Zakharov said in Russia’s second city Saint Petersburg.
The elections were also marred by claims of censorship and rampant ballot stuffing.
As voting kicked off Friday, Apple and Google caused an uproar among Russia’s opposition after they removed Navalny’s “Smart Voting” app, which showed supporters which candidate they should back to unseat Kremlin-aligned politicians.
Sources familiar with Google and Apple’s decision said the move was taken under pressure from Russian authorities, including threats to arrest the tech giants’ local staff.
By late Friday, the popular Telegram messenger had also removed Navalny’s “Smart Voting” bot, and by the early hours of Sunday Google Docs and YouTube videos containing the lists of the recommended candidates had also been blocked.
Navalny’s team said that Google, which did not immediately respond to a request for, had complied with demands made by Russia’s media regulator Roskomnadzor.
They also swiftly made new Google Docs and YouTube videos with the lists.
“How quickly will Roskomnadzor write another request and YouTube will fulfil it? Let’s see,” Navalny’s banned Anti-Corruption Foundation tweeted.
Russian social media meanwhile was inundated with reports of ballot stuffing and military servicemen patrolling polling stations.
Critics also pointed to online voting, new limits on independent election observers and the polls being spread over three days as presenting opportunities for mass voting fraud.
As of Saturday afternoon, the independent Golos election monitor — which authorities branded a “foreign agent” ahead of the polls — had tracked more than 2,750 reports of voting violations.
Elections chief Ella Pamfilova said Saturday her commission had received 137 reports of voting “coercion.”
Going into the lower house State Duma vote, Putin’s United Russia party was polling at historical lows.
Recent surveys by state-run pollster VTsIOM showed fewer than 30 percent of Russians planning to vote for the party, down at least 10 percentage points in the weeks ahead of the last parliamentary election in 2016.
While 68-year-old Putin remains popular, United Russia has seen its support drop as living standards decline following years of economic stagnation.
But the ruling party is widely expected to retain its two-thirds majority in the lower house, allowing it to push through legislative changes without resistance.
In addition to United Russia, 13 more parties are running in the elections. They, however, are widely seen as token opposition doing the Kremlin’s bidding.

Australia’s Scott Morrison: Canberra had ‘deep and grave concerns’ over French submarines

Australia’s Scott Morrison: Canberra had ‘deep and grave concerns’ over French submarines
Updated 19 September 2021

Australia’s Scott Morrison: Canberra had ‘deep and grave concerns’ over French submarines

Australia’s Scott Morrison: Canberra had ‘deep and grave concerns’ over French submarines
  • France is furious at Australia’s decision to withdraw from a multibillion-dollar deal to build French submarines
  • Canberra was unable to buy French nuclear-powered vessels because they require charging while the American submarines do not

SYDNEY: Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Sunday the French government would have known Canberra had “deep and grave concerns” about French submarines before the deal was torn up last week.
France is furious at Australia’s decision to withdraw from a multibillion-dollar deal to build French submarines in favor of American nuclear-powered vessels, recalling its ambassadors from Canberra and Washington and accusing its allies of “lying” about their plans.
Morrison said he understood the French government’s “disappointment” but said he had raised issues with the deal “some months ago,” as had other Australian government ministers.
“I think they would have had every reason to know that we had deep and grave concerns that the capability being delivered by the Attack Class submarine was not going to meet our strategic interests and we made very clear that we would be making a decision based on our strategic national interest,” he told a press conference in Sydney.
Morrison said it would have been “negligent” to proceed with the deal against intelligence and defense advice and that doing so would be counter to Australia’s strategic interests.
“I don’t regret the decision to put Australia’s national interest first. Never will,” he said.
Speaking to Sky News Australia earlier on Sunday, Defense Minister Peter Dutton said his government had been “upfront, open and honest” with France that it had concerns about the deal, which was over-budget and years behind schedule.
Dutton said he understood the “French upset” but added that “suggestions that the concerns haven’t been flagged by the Australian government just defy, frankly, what’s on the public record and certainly what was said publicly over a long period of time.”
“The government has had those concerns, we’ve expressed them, and we want to work very closely with the French and we’ll continue to do that into the future,” he said.
Dutton said he had personally expressed those concerns to his French counterpart, Florence Parly, and highlighted Australia’s “need to act in our national interest,” which he said was acquiring the nuclear-powered submarines.
“And given the changing circumstances in the Indo-Pacific, not just now but over the coming years, we had to make a decision that was in our national interest and that’s exactly what we’ve done,” he added.
Canberra was unable to buy French nuclear-powered vessels because they require charging while the American submarines do not, making only the latter suitable for nuclear-free Australia, Dutton said.
With Australia’s new submarine fleet not expected to be operational for decades, Dutton said the country may consider leasing or buying existing submarines from the United States or Britain in the interim.
Australia will get the nuclear-powered submarines as part of a new defense alliance announced with the United States and Britain on Wednesday, in a pact widely seen as aimed at countering the rise of China.


Australia reports 1,607 COVID-19 cases as states learn to live with coronavirus

Australia reports 1,607 COVID-19 cases as states learn to live with coronavirus
Updated 19 September 2021

Australia reports 1,607 COVID-19 cases as states learn to live with coronavirus

Australia reports 1,607 COVID-19 cases as states learn to live with coronavirus
  • Victoria premier said a weeks-long lockdown will end once 70 percent of those 16 and older are fully vaccinated, whether or not there are new cases

MELBOURNE: Australia reported 1,607 new coronavirus cases on Sunday as states and territories gradually shift from trying to eliminate outbreaks to living with the virus.
Victoria, home to about a quarter of Australia’s 25 million people, recorded 507 cases as its premier said a weeks-long lockdown will end once 70 percent of those 16 and older are fully vaccinated, whether or not there are new cases.
Premier Daniel Andrews said the state might reach that vaccination threshold around Oct. 26. About 43 percent Victorians have been fully vaccinated and just over 46 percent people nationwide.
“We will do so cautiously, but make no mistake, we are opening this place up. There is no alternative,” Andrews said. We “cannot perennially or permanently suppress this virus. Lockdowns have been about buying time to get to 70 percent and 80 percent vaccination.”
Many social distancing restrictions will remain and retail and hospitality venues will be limited, but people will be free to leave their house without a reason.
Andrews said the authorities aim to have 80 percent of the state’s eligible population fully vaccinated in time for the Nov. 2 Melbourne Cup, leaving the door open for crowds on track at Australia’s most famous horse race.
The COVID-19 plan follows a federal scheme that will end lockdowns at a 70 percent vaccination rate and gradually reopen international borders at 80 percent.
New South Wales has adopted a similar plan. Australia’s most-populous state reported 1,083 cases on Sunday as it uses lockdowns and vaccination blitzes to fight an outbreak of the Delta variant that began in mid-June.
The state, home to Sydney, eased some restrictions on gathering on Sunday. Some 52 percent of people have been vaccinated in New South Wales.
After eliminating COVID-19 outbreaks last year through lockdowns, border closures and strict public health measures, Australia has acknowledged in recent months that it may not be able to eradicate Delta outbreaks.
The country has had just over 84,000 coronavirus cases, but two-thirds of the infections have occurred this year, mostly since June. There have been 1,162 deaths COVID-19 deaths.


Indonesia retrieves most-wanted militant’s body from jungle

Indonesia retrieves most-wanted militant’s body from jungle
Updated 19 September 2021

Indonesia retrieves most-wanted militant’s body from jungle

Indonesia retrieves most-wanted militant’s body from jungle
  • The two men were fatally shot by a joint team of military and police officers in Central Sulawesi province’s mountainous Parigi Moutong district

PALU, Indonesia: The bodies of Indonesia’s most wanted militant with ties to the Daesh group and a follower, who were killed in a jungle shootout with security forces, were evacuated early Sunday to a police hospital for further investigation, police said.

The military earlier said the militants killed late Saturday were Ali Kalora, leader of the East Indonesia Mujahideen network that has claimed several killings of police officers and minority Christians, and another suspected extremist, Jaka Ramadan, also known as Ikrima.

The two men were fatally shot by a joint team of military and police officers in Central Sulawesi province’s mountainous Parigi Moutong district. It borders Poso district, considered an extremist hotbed in the province.

Several pictures obtained by The Associated Press from authorities showed an M16 rifle and backpacks laid near their bloodied bodies. The Central Sulawesi Police Chief Rudy Sufahriadi told a news conference on Sunday that security forces also seized two ready-to-use bombs from their backpacks, which also contained food and camping tools.

He said the bodies of Kalora and his follower have been evacuated to a police hospital in Palu, the provincial capital, after the rugged terrain and darkness hampered earlier evacuation efforts from the scene of the shootout in the forested village of Astina.

“We urged the other four wanted terrorists to immediately surrender and dare to take responsibility for their actions before the law,” said Sufahriadi, referring to remaining members of the East Indonesia Mujahideen who are still at large in the jungle on Sulawesi island.

The militant group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014, and Indonesia has intensified its security operations in the area in recent months to try to capture its members, particularly the leader, Kalora.

Two months ago, security forces killed two suspected members in a raid in the same mountainous district, several days after authorities claimed that Kalora and three group members planned to surrender. The surrender was reportedly canceled after other members rejected the plan.

Kalora had eluded capture for more than a decade. He took over leadership of the group from Abu Wardah Santoso, who was killed by security forces in July 2016. Dozens of other leaders and members have been killed or captured since then, including a number of people from China’s ethnic Uyghur minority who had joined the Santoso-led group.

In May, the militants killed four Christians in a village in Poso district, including one who was beheaded. Authorities said the attack was in revenge for the killings in March of two militants, including Santoso’s son.

Santoso was wanted for running a radical training camp in Poso, where a Muslim-Christian conflict killed at least 1,000 people from 1998 to 2002. He was linked to a number of deadly attacks against police officers and Christians.

Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, has kept up a crackdown on militants since bombings on the resort island of Bali in 2002 killed 202 people, mostly Western and Asian tourists.

Militant attacks on foreigners in Indonesia have been largely replaced in recent years by smaller, less deadly strikes targeting the government, mainly police and anti-terrorism forces, and people militants consider to be infidels, inspired by Daesh group tactics abroad.


Former Malaysia PM Najib Razak may seek re-election to parliament despite conviction

Former Malaysia PM Najib Razak may seek re-election to parliament despite conviction
Updated 19 September 2021

Former Malaysia PM Najib Razak may seek re-election to parliament despite conviction

Former Malaysia PM Najib Razak may seek re-election to parliament despite conviction
  • Najib Razak, who served as premier for nine years until 2018, was found guilty of corruption last year

KUALA LUMPUR: Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has not ruled out seeking re-election to parliament within the next two years, he told Reuters in an interview, undeterred by a corruption conviction that would block him from running.
Najib’s graft-tainted party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), clinched the premiership last month after it was ousted from power three years ago over a multibillion-dollar scandal. Opponents had expressed fears that party leaders facing charges could secure leniency once back in control.
Najib, who served as premier for nine years until 2018, was found guilty of corruption last year and sentenced to 12 years in jail over one of many cases over the misappropriation of funds from now-defunct state fund 1MDB. He has denied wrongdoing and has appealed the verdict.
He is still a member of parliament but the constitution bars him from contesting elections unless he gets a pardon or a reprieve from the country’s monarch.
But speaking to Reuters on Saturday, Najib challenged his disqualification saying: “It is subject to interpretation.”
“It depends on interpretation in terms of the law, the constitution and whatever happens in court proceedings,” Najib said.
Asked if he would contest the next elections due by 2023, he said: “Any politician who would want to play a role would want a seat in parliament.”