THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Israel’s prime minister Sunday directly blamed Iran for a drone attack on an oil tanker off the coast of Oman that killed two people, making a veiled threat to retaliate as Tehran denied being involved in the assault.
The comments by Premier Naftali Bennett and Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh come after the strike Thursday night on the oil tanker Mercer Street. The attack 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.
“The Iranians who attacked with unmanned aircraft the Mercer Street intended to harm an Israeli target,” Bennett said at the start of Israel’s weekly Cabinet meeting. “Instead, their piratical act caused the deaths of a British citizen and a Romanian citizen.”
He warned: “We know, at any rate, know how to convey the message to Iran in our own way.”
On Sunday, Khatibzadeh described the allegation Iran carried out the attack as “baseless” during his last news conference as the Foreign Ministry’s spokesman.
“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.”
Khatibzadeh spoke around an hour after Iran’s outgoing president acknowledged that his government at times “did not tell part of the truth” to the public during his term.
The American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and the guided missile destroyer USS Mitscher were escorting the Mercer Street as it headed to a safe port, the U.S. Navy’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet said in a statement early Saturday. It said Navy explosive experts believe a drone attacked the vessel.
The drone attack blasted a hole through the top of the oil tanker’s bridge, where the captain and crew command the vessel, a U.S. official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as an investigation into the attack still was ongoing.
The Mercer Street is managed by London-based Zodiac Maritime, part of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group. The firm said the attack killed two crew members, one from the United Kingdom and the other from Romania. It did not name them, nor did it describe what happened in the assault. It said it believed no other crew members on board were harmed.
British maritime security firm Ambrey said the attack on the Mercer Street had killed one of its team members on board the vessel.
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.”
Bennett 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.”
Associated Press writers Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem contributed to this report.