The Iranian Navy’s largest warship caught fire and later on Wednesday sank in the Gulf of Oman in unexplained circumstances, the latest disaster to hit any of the country’s ships in recent years amid tensions with the west.
The fire started around 2:25 a.m. and firefighters tried to contain it, the Fars News Agency reported, but their efforts to rescue the 207 meters (679 feet) long kharg, which was used to supply other ships in the fleet at sea, failed and do training exercises. State media reported that 400 soldiers on board fled the ship, injuring around 20.
The ship sank near the Iranian port of Jask, about 1,270 kilometers southeast of Tehran on the Gulf of Oman near the Strait of Hormuz – the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf. Satellite photos from Planet Labs Inc., analyzed by The Associated Press, showed the Kharg in front of Jask with no evidence of fire through 11 a.m. Tuesday.
Photos were circulating on Iranian social media of sailors wearing life jackets evacuating the ship when a fire burned behind them. Fars posted a video of thick black smoke rising from the ship early Wednesday morning. US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellites tracking fires from space discovered a fire near Jask that broke out shortly before the fire reported by Fars.
Iranian officials did not provide a reason for the fire on board the Kharg, but said an investigation has been opened. It comes after a series of mysterious explosions that began in 2019 that targeted merchant ships in the Gulf of Oman. The US Navy later accused Iran of attacking the ships with mines.
Iran denied this despite U.S. Navy footage showing members of the Revolutionary Guard removing an unexploded limpets mine from a ship. The attacks came amid heightened tensions between the US and Iran after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran’s nuclear deal with the world powers. Negotiations to save the agreement are ongoing in Vienna.
In April, an Iranian ship called MV Saviz, believed to be a wax base and anchored in the Red Sea off Yemen for years, was believed to have been attacked by Israel. A year-long shadow war in the Middle East escalated between the two countries, ranging from attacks in Syria to attacks on ships and attacks on the Iranian nuclear program.
The Israeli Prime Minister’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the Kharg on Wednesday.
State television and semi-official news agencies called the Kharg, named after the island that serves as the most important oil terminal for Iran, a “training ship” on Wednesday. It was one of the few ships in the Iranian Navy that was able to replenish other ships at sea. It can also lift heavy cargo and act as a take-off point for helicopters.
Like much of Iran’s most important military equipment, the Kharg came from before the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The warship, built in Great Britain and launched in 1977, joined the Iranian Navy in 1984 after lengthy negotiations. This aging military equipment did not become fatal until Tuesday when a malfunction in the ejection seats of a pre-revolution Iranian F-5 killed two pilots while the plane was parked in a hangar.
In the past few months, the Navy launched a slightly larger commercial tanker called the Makran, which they converted into a function similar to the Kharg.
The sinking of the Kharg marks the most recent maritime disaster for Iran. In 2020, during an Iranian military exercise, a missile accidentally hit a naval ship near Jask, killing 19 sailors and injuring 15. Also in 2018, an Iranian naval destroyer sank in the Caspian Sea.
—Amir Vahdat and Jon Gambrell, The Associated Press
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