The United States navy fired warning shots at two Iranian boats in the Gulf yesterday in the worst confrontation yet in the world’s busiest oil shipping lanes.
A US forces security team on a chartered transport ship used loudhailers, radios and flares to warn off two small Iranian boats acting in an “unclear” manner.
But the boats ignored the warning and the Americans opened fire, unleashing several bursts of live ammunition. The incident took place in the early morning near the international boundary in an area designated by the US navy as the Central Arabian Gulf.
The boats turned away but the US vessel, the Westward Venture, was asked to identify itself by the Iranian coastguard minutes later.
The incident heightened fears over the stability of a key energy artery, helping propel the price of Brent crude to a record high in late afternoon trading.
A spokesman for the US navy in Bahrain said the security team used.50-calibre machineguns and M-16 assault rifles to warn off the boats. Cdr Lydia Robertson said: “The small boats left the area a short time later. We were able to avoid a serious incident by following the procedures that we use.”
Confrontations between the powers in the narrow waterway have become more frequent. Two weeks ago the USS Typhoon reported that it had been harassed by an Iranian patrol boat in the area. In January, the US accused Iranian coastguards of threatening to blow up its patrol in a kamikaze-style attack. It later emerged that a radio ham known as Filipino Monkey may have caused the incident.
Iranian state-controlled television yesterday denied that any of its boats had been shot at by the US military. “If shots were possibly fired, then they could have been shot at non-Iranian boats,” it said.
News of the incident emerged as America’s most senior military official, Adml Mike Mullen, warned that the flow of weapons from Iran to factions in Iraq had risen in recent months.
“The Iranian government pledged to halt such activity some months ago,” he said. “It’s plainly obvious they have not. Indeed, they seem to have gone the other way.”
But he added that he did not foresee an all-out confrontation with Iran in the near future.
However, last night’s reports drew attention away from the second round of Iranian parliamentary elections, where hard-liners were expected to prevail.
By Damien McElroy, Foreign Affairs Correspondent
Last Updated: 1:37am BST 26/04/200