A civilian ship contracted by the U.S. military fired warning shots at two small boats approaching it in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. Navy said Friday, describing the latest of a string of similar incidents that have triggered concern in Washington.
The U.S. military has been wary of small boats operating near its ships ever since an explosive-laden vessel rammed the USS Cole as it refueled in a Yemen harbor in 2000, killing 17 sailors onboard.
Those fears were heightened in recent months by several incidents in the Gulf's narrow Strait of Hormuz where small Iranian boats approached American warships despite warnings to alter their course. Senior U.S. military officials have warned Iran about the risk of triggering an unintended conflict if its boats continue to harass American ships in the Gulf.
The U.S. Navy said it does not know whether the two boats that approached the Western Venture cargo ship on Thursday morning were from Iran. Iranian officials have denied their vessels were involved in the incident.
The Western Venture was transiting north in international waters in the central Gulf when it was approached by two small boats of unknown origin, said Cmdr. Lydia Robertson, spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain.
"Following proper procedures, Western Venture issued standard queries to the small boats via bridge-to-bridge radio but received no response," said Robertson. "Western Venture then activated a flare but again did not receive a response."
The small boats continued toward the ship, and the ship's security team fired warning shots with .50-caliber machine guns and M-16s into the water in front of the boats causing them to leave the area, said Robertson.
A unit that identified itself as an Iranian Coast Guard vessel radioed the Western Venture a short time after the incident to determine its identity, said Robertson.
"It is not clear if this was one of the small boats or a separate boat," she said.
The Western Venture is owned by U.S.-based Totem Ocean Trailer Express Inc. and was carrying military cargo on its way to Kuwait when the incident occurred, said Robertson.
Oil prices rose sharply on news reports that the boats fired upon were from Iran. But an unidentified Iranian Navy official on Friday denied that the small boats involved in the incident were Iranian, according to Iran's official Arabic-language Al-Alam television.
An unnamed senior official from the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards said Friday that Iran would have retaliated if the U.S. had fired at its boats.
"If the UK or U.S. had fired at Iranian boats, based on previous experience, they would have faced the harshest reaction by Iranian forces," he told Iran's official English-language Press TV.
Five small Iranian boats swarmed three U.S. warships in the Strait of Hormuz in early January. The U.S. commanders did not fire warning shots despite hearing a strange radio call saying the boats would explode, and the Iranians eventually retreated.
In mid-December, a U.S. ship fired a warning shot at a small Iranian boat that came too close in the Strait of Hormuz, causing the Iranians to pull back.
The British also tangled with the Iranians in the Gulf last year when Iran seized 15 sailors and marines in March while they were searching a merchant ship off the coast of Iraq. Iran eventually released the Brits after almost two weeks of holding them hostage.
Tension has been high between Iran and the West in recent years over accusations that Tehran is supporting Shiite militias in Iraq and using its nuclear program as cover for weapons development. Iran has repeatedly denied both claims.