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The 5,466 teu Maersk Tigris and its 24-strong crew remain under arrest in Iranian waters today as charterer Maersk Line, shipmanager Rickmers and the Danish embassy in Teheran endeavour to negotiate with the Iran courts over the settlement of a decade-old cargo claim and the release of the ship.
According to a Pentagon spokesman for the US Department of Defense, the US Naval Forces Central Command (Navcent) answered a distress call in the early hours of Tuesday morning from the master of the container vessel after an Iranian naval ship fired across its bridge forcing the captain to alter course and allow Iranian guards to board.
The vessel, registered in the Marshall Islands, is deployed on Maersk Line’s ME3, Black Sea-Middle East Gulf service and was en route from Jeddah to Jebel Ali when it was seized.
The 2014-built vessel was transiting the narrow Strait of Hormuz which, although within Iranian territorial waters, is a recognised international shipping lane on the basis of ‘innocent passage’ and is a vital trade route.
US Army Colonel Steve Warren explained: “The ship’s master was contacted and directed to proceed further into Iranian territorial waters. He declined and one of the IRGCN [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy] craft fired shots across the bridge of the Maersk Tigris.”
Col Warren added that Navcent, having picked up a distress signal, directed a guided-missile destroyer, USS Farragut, towards the seized ship and also ordered a maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft to “observe the interaction”.
The Pentagon said the Maersk Tigris had been the second ship in the past week to be approached by Iranian patrol boats, the US-flagged 6,200 teu Maersk Kensington having been followed but not fired upon.
The incidents amounted to a “pattern of harassment” said the Pentagon, and came at a critical time for US-Iranian relations as a nuclear deal is being thrashed out by negotiators.
The IRGCN boats tracking the Maersk Kensington may have been ordered not to seize the ship as it was flying a US flag and thus American-crewed, given that US forces have immediate powers to intervene, as when the Maersk Alabama was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009.
However, according to the US State Department, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, albeit a sovereign nation, comes under the responsibility of the US for security and defence “under the terms of an amended compact entered into force in 2004”, so the Iranians may have overlooked this when the order was given to arrest the Marshall Islands-registered Maersk Tigris.
Moreover, tensions have been heightened in the region by the Yemen civil war where Saudi Arabia and Iran support opposing sides.
Meanwhile, Maersk will have to decide whether to lodge a counter appeal or pay a $3.6m fine imposed by an Iranian appeal court, after the carrier agreed to pay a $163,000 fine handed down in February. The fine related to a dispute over 10 containers transported to Dubai in 2005 which were ultimately destroyed under UAE law after 90 days when the Iranian consignee failed to take delivery.
Maersk Line tweeted today: “Continuing to do all we can to resolve the matter, our paramount concern remains the safety of the crew and safe release of Maersk Tigris.”
A Rickmers update said that a company representative had been allowed to board the ship and had established that “all seafarers are safe”.