Spain pulls its frigate from US military build-up. Kuwait condemns terrorist attack

RIYADH: Drone attacks claimed by Iran-aligned Yemen rebels shut down one of Saudi Arabia’s major oil pipelines yesterday, further ratcheting up Gulf tensions after the mysterious sabotage of several tankers. The White House however played down tensions, despite days earlier deploying bombers and an assault ship to bolster an aircraft carrier in one of the world’s most sensitive waterways as it exchanged barbs with Saudi arch-rival Iran.
“We fundamentally do not see a war with Iran,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said a joint news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Sochi. Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest crude exporter and OPEC kingpin, said two pumping stations had been targeted yesterday. They lie on the East West Pipeline, able to pump five million barrels of oil a day from the oil-rich Eastern Province to a Red Sea export terminal.

The announcement came hours after Yemen’s Houthi rebels said they had targeted vital installations in Saudi Arabia, which leads a military coalition against them. Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih said Saudi Aramco had “temporarily shut down” the pipeline to “evaluate its condition” but added that oil production and exports had not been interrupted. He said the incident was an “act of terrorism… that not only targets the kingdom but also the security of oil supplies to the world and the global economy”.
Huthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam wrote on Twitter that the attacks were “a response to the aggressors continuing to commit genocide” against the Yemeni people. In a statement carried by rebel-run Al-Masirah TV, the Houthis warned of other “unique operations… if the aggressors continue with their crimes and blockade”. “We are capable of executing unique operations on a bigger and wider scale in the hearts of the enemy countries,” they said.

HARADH: File photo shows a general view of an oil plant in Haradh. Two pumping stations on a major Saudi oil pipeline were attacked by drones yesterday. – AFP

‘Sabotage attacks’
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened in the Yemen war to bolster the internationally recognized government’s efforts against the Houthis in March 2015. The 1,200-kilometre pipeline reportedly hit yesterday serves as an alternative for Saudi crude exports if the strategically vital Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf were to be closed.

Iran has repeatedly threatened to close the strait in case of a military confrontation with the US. The reported pipeline attacks came after the UAE said four ships were damaged in “sabotage attacks” off the emirate of Fujairah, on the mouth of the Hormuz, on Sunday. Washington and its Gulf allies did not immediately blame Riyadh’s regional arch-rival Tehran for the sabotage, but US President Donald Trump has warned Iran against doing anything to harm US interests.

The attacks came after the United States deployed the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier group, an amphibious assault vessel, a Patriot missile battery and B-52 bombers, triggering fears of a possible military confrontation. However, Trump later denied a New York Times report that he is considering sending 120,000 troops to counter Iran. “Now, would I do that? Absolutely. But we have not planned for that,” Trump told reporters. “Hopefully we’re not going to have to plan for that. If we did that, we’d send a hell of a lot more troops than that.”

‘Exercise restraint’
A UAE government official said the Saudi oil tankers Al-Marzoqah and Amjad were attacked off the emirate of Fujairah along with the Norwegian tanker Andrea Victory and an Emirati ship, the A Michel. No casualties were reported and none of the vessels sank. The UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said the Emirates would probe the “deliberate sabotage”. Saudi Arabia said its two tankers suffered “significant damage” but there was no oil spill.

The Andrea Victory’s managers, Thome Group, said the ship’s hull had been pierced “after being struck by an unknown object on the waterline”. Asked whether the US believed Iran played a role in the attacks, Washington’s Iran envoy Brian Hook declined to comment, saying only that US authorities would help the investigation at the request of the UAE. The United Nations urged all sides to “exercise restraint for the sake of regional peace”. Oil prices initially spiked in response to news of the attacks, but were largely flat in trading yesterday.

Fujairah port is the only Emirati terminal located on the Arabian Sea coast, bypassing the Strait of Hormuz through which most Gulf oil exports pass. Iran and the US have engaged in a war of words in recent weeks since Tehran began to roll back commitments set out in a landmark 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. Trump withdrew the United States from the deal last year and has unilaterally reimposed tough sanctions on Iran.

AT SEA: Photo shows the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) while conducting a replenishment-at-sea with the fast combat support ship USNS Arctic (T-AOE 9), as the MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopters assigned to the ‘Nightdippers’ of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 5, transfer stores between the ships. – AFP

Spain pulls its frigate
In another development, Spain has recalled a frigate accompanying a US aircraft carrier to the Middle East because of rising tensions between Washington and Tehran, the defense ministry said yesterday. “For the moment the frigate Mendez Nunez has left the combat group of the USS Abraham Lincoln,” a ministry spokesman told AFP, confirming a report in the Spanish daily El Pais. “It’s a temporary withdrawal, decided by Defense Minister Margarita Robles, as long as the American aircraft carrier is in this zone,” the spokesman added.

He said the Spanish frigate had joined the aircraft carrier’s strike group for a military exercise. “No possible confrontation or warlike action is envisaged (by Spain) and it is for this reason that the participation is suspended for the moment,” he added. On May 5, the United States announced it was deploying the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force to the Middle East in response to a “credible threat” from Iran.
Last Friday, the Pentagon announced the deployment of the amphibious assault ship the USS Arlington and a Patriot missile battery to the region.

Washington reiterated that intelligence reports suggested Iran was planning some sort of attack in the region. Robles later told reporters in Brussels that the US decision to deploy the aircraft carrier to the Gulf “went beyond what was scheduled in the terms of a cooperation agreement that placed the Mendez Nunez frigate with the US fleet for training.

“This is not a problem of discrepancies with Iran or.. It’s a question of interpretation of a techno-military agreement,” she added. The Spanish frigate is currently in Mumbai, the minister said. The spike in tensions between the United States and Iran comes a week after Tehran announced it was suspending some of its commitments under the 2015 nuclear agreement. That came a year after President Donald Trump withdrew from the accord and slapped tough sanctions on the Islamic republic.

On Sunday and Monday, US allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates said oil tankers belonging to them were damaged in “sabotage attacks” in the Gulf. Neither country released further details. No link has officially been drawn between the incidents and US accusations concerning “imminent” attacks by Tehran against US interests in the region. Britain, France and Germany on Monday urged the US not to further escalate tensions over the Iran nuclear deal.

Kuwait condemns attack
Kuwait condemns in the strongest words the terrorist drone attack on two pumping stations in Dawadmi and Afif Governorates in Saudi Arabia, said an official source of the Foreign Ministry. The source affirmed that Kuwait stands side by side with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and fully supports all measures taken to maintain its security and stability while fighting terrorist acts that undermine the security and stability of the kingdom and the region. The source prayed Allah Almighty to bestow security and stability on the kingdom, and safety on its citizens. – Agencies