Dubai, Jun 13 (AP/UNB) — A U.K. maritime safety group warned Thursday of an unspecified incident in the Gulf of Oman and urged "extreme caution" amid heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran and a high-stakes visit by the Japanese prime minister to Iran.
Iranian media claimed — without offering any evidence — that there had been an explosion in the area targeting oil tankers.
The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which is run by the British navy, put out the alert but did not elaborate on the incident. It said it was investigating.
Cmdr. Joshua Frey, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy's Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, said his command was "aware" of a reported incident in the area. He declined to elaborate.
"We are working on getting details," Frey told The Associated Press.
Benchmark Brent crude rose over 4% in trading, to over $62 a barrel after reports of the incident, according to early market figures Thursday.
Dryad Global, a maritime intelligence firm, preliminarily identified the vessel involved as the MT Front Altair, a Marshall Islands-flagged crude oil tanker. The vessel was "on fire and adrift," Dryad added. It did not offer a cause for the incident.
Iranian state television's website, citing the pro-Iran Lebanese satellite news channel Al-Mayadeen, said two oil tankers had been targeted in the Gulf of Oman. It offered no evidence to support the claim.
Emirati officials declined to immediately comment. The coordinates offered for the incident by the U.K. group put it some 45 kilometers (25 miles) off the Iranian coastline.
The maritime alert comes after what the United States has described as Iranian attacks on four oil tankers nearby, off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. Iran has denied being involved.
Those apparent attacks occurred off the Emirati port of Fujairah, also on the Gulf of Oman, approaching the critical Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a third of all oil traded by sea passes.
The timing was especially sensitive as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was visiting Iran on a high-stakes diplomacy mission. On Wednesday, after talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Abe warned that any "accidental conflict" that could be sparked amid the heightened U.S.-Iran tensions must be avoided.
His message came just hours after Yemen's Iranian-backed Houthi rebels attacked a Saudi airport, wounding 26 people.
Abe was to meet with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Thursday, the second and final day of his visit.
Meanwhile, in Tokyo, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, a top government spokesman, told reporters that Abe's trip was intended to help de-escalate tensions in the Mideast — but not specifically mediate between Tehran and Washington.
His remarks were apparently meant to downplay and lower expectations amid uncertain prospects for Abe's mission.
Tensions have escalated in the Mideast as Iran appears poised to break the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, an accord that the Trump administration pulled out of last year.
Anchorage, Jun 13 (AP/UNB) — At least 60 ice seals have been found dead along Alaska's west coast and federal biologists on Wednesday were trying to determine the cause.
Some carcasses had lost hair and NOAA Fisheries will try to determine if that was due to decomposition or abnormal molting.
The agency noted the importance of ice seals to Alaska Native coastal communities. Seals are essential to coastal communities and food safety is a major concern.
Bearded, ringed and spotted seals were reported dead south of Nome and north of the Bering Strait.
A hunter counted 18 carcasses along 11 miles (17.7 kilometers) of shore north of the village of Kotlik and dozens of other dead seals along an island near Stebbins.
Eight young bearded seals were found Monday on St. Lawrence Island.
North of the Bering Strait in the Chukchi Sea, a National Park Service biologist counted six dead seals near Kotzebue's airport. NOAA Fisheries also received accounts of up to 30 dead seals between Kivalina and Point Hope.
Abnormal molting was present during the deaths of ice seals and walruses from 2011 to 2016 and led NOAA Fisheries to investigate after declaring an unusual mortality event in the Bering and Chukchi seas.
A definitive cause for the abnormal molting was not identified.
The agency estimated that 657 seals were affected over those six years. Biologists confirmed 233 dead and stranded ringed, bearded, spotted and ribbon seals and 179 killed by hunters. Another 245 were found with abnormal molting during health assessments.
Ringed seals are the smallest of Alaska's ice seals and get their name from small, light-colored circles on their coats. They are the only seals that thrive in completely ice-covered Arctic waters.
Bearded seals get their name from short snouts covered with thick, long, white whiskers. Bearded seals give birth and rear pups on drifting pack ice.
Spotted seals are medium-size seals with light coats and dark spots. They often are found at the outer margins of shifting ice floes and rarely in areas of dense pack ice, NOAA says.
Washington, Jun 12 (AP/UNB) — The meeting between acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and his Chinese counterpart began with all the hallmarks of a routine staged and scripted session between two uneasy rivals.
First came the posed photo, as the two men shook hands with broad smiles in front of their nations' flags, and then they moved quickly into the hotel conference room, surrounded by staff. There, Shanahan presented Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe with a gift.
But what at first glance looked like a coffee table book was actually 32 pages of photographs and satellite images of North Korean ships getting and delivering shipments of oil. Many of the photos are stamped with dates, times, locations and descriptions, and, according to officials, represent proof that Pyongyang is violating punishing economic sanctions right off China's coast.
"I gave him this beautiful book," Shanahan said a day after his meeting with Wei and his top staff at a national security conference in Singapore. "I said this is an area where you and I can cooperate."
The pointed message from the acting Pentagon chief comes as the Trump administration is at odds with China over a wide range of issues, including trade, Chinese theft of American technology, the possible sale of U.S. weapons to Taiwan and how to pressure North Korea into giving up its nuclear weapons program.
China agreed to the U.N. sanctions against its ally and neighbor North Korea, but, as the photo book illustrates, appears to be allowing violations to take place.
On one page of the book viewed by The Associated Press, a photo shows the North Korean-flagged oil tanker Kum Un San 3 next to the M/V New Regent, a Panama-flagged tanker, and a number of lines and hoses are draped between the two ships. The photo is dated June 7, 2018.
The U.N., in an October 2018 press release, said the June 7 ship-to-ship transfer was a violation and said it likely involved oil. The U.N. sanctioned the two ships and said they are subject to de-flagging and prohibited from entering U.N. member ports.
Another photo in the book shows the North Korean tanker An San 1, and says it is "offloading refined petroleum" through an undersea pipeline at the terminal in Nampo, near Pyongyang.
Lt. Col. Joe Buccino, a Pentagon spokesman, said Shanahan devised the book to show that enforcement of U.N. sanctions off the Chinese coast is "an area for potential coordination and collaboration" with the Chinese military.
A U.S. defense official said Shanahan had the photographs and information in the book declassified and bound. Shanahan presented the book to Wei at the start of their meeting, saying he had a gift for the minister, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a private meeting. The official said Wei initially appeared taken aback at receiving a gift, but when he realized what it was he quickly turned it over to his staff.
During the meeting, Shanahan told Wei that the U.S. and Chinese navies could work together to prevent such violations of the U.N. sanctions, said the official.
"It's actually very clever," said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China power project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It's really calling out China. This is a way of telling them that we know what's going on, we have quite a bit of evidence, and here's an opportunity for you to expand cooperation with the United States."
Glaser, who also attended the Singapore conference, said she spoke with members of the China delegation and they described the meeting between Shanahan and Wei as positive and upbeat. No one, she said, mentioned the book.
"I think it was probably embarrassing," she said. "They probably thought they were getting something wonderful, that would highlight something positive, not something calling out China for their failure to step up and crack down on North Korea."
The oil and trade sanctions against North Korea have hurt its already struggling economy, and both Russia and China have called for easing them. China isn't likely to want to openly evade the sanctions and face diplomatic friction with the United States, but more than 90% of North Korea's foreign trade has gone through China.
The U.N. Security Council in March said North Korea was continuing to defy its resolutions through a "massive" increase in ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum products and coal. The U.S. Navy has been working with a number of countries, including South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and France, to catch sanctions violations such as ship-to-ship transfers.
Shanahan's meeting with Wei at the Shangri-La Dialogue security conference earlier this month came just the evening before he delivered a speech that denounced China's efforts to steal technology from other nations and militarize man-made outposts in the South China Sea as a "toolkit of coercion." But he also made clear the U.S. wants to work with China on other international issues.
In a brief mention of the book during questions after his conference speech, Shanahan said the two countries must work through their differences.
"Trust is built over time," he said. "Trust is built by working on projects and being shoulder to shoulder. It isn't done by conferences or by policies or by speeches. We need to find areas in which we can grow."
New York, Jun 12 (AP/UNB) — The pilot killed when his helicopter hit the roof of a New York City skyscraper in rain and fog radioed that he was lost and trying to get back to the heliport but couldn't find it, an official briefed on the investigation told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
The radio calls are the clearest evidence yet that foul weather might have played a role in Monday's crash.
The person wasn't authorized to discuss the radio calls publicly because of the ongoing federal safety investigation and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Videos posted on social media soon after the crash showed a helicopter that investigators believe is the doomed chopper pausing and hovering south of the heliport, then turning and making an erratic flight back north through rain and clouds.
The pilot, 58-year-old Tim McCormack, was not authorized to fly in limited visibility, raising questions about why he took off in the first place.
McCormack was only licensed to fly under regulations known as visual flight rules, which require generally good weather and clear conditions, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
The rules demand at least 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) of visibility and that aircraft steer clear of clouds for daytime flights. The visibility at the time of Monday's crash was about 1¼ miles (2 kilometers) at nearby Central Park, with low clouds blanketing the skyline.
The crash in the tightly controlled airspace of midtown Manhattan shook the 750-foot (229-meter) AXA Equitable building, obliterated the Agusta A109E helicopter, sparked a fire and forced office workers to flee.
It briefly triggered memories of 9/11 and fears of a terrorist attack, but authorities said there is no indication the crash was deliberate.
The crash, the second in Manhattan in a month, also led to renewed calls for restricting helicopter flights over the city.
U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who represents the area where McCormack crashed, said it's "past time" for the FAA to ban "unnecessary helicopters" from the city's skies.
Fellow Democrat Rep. Nydia Velazquez said she wants tourist flights grounded. Last year, five passengers were killed when a sightseeing helicopter plunged into the East River .
"The risks to New Yorkers are just too high," Maloney said.
At a National Transportation Safety Board briefing Tuesday, investigator Doug Brazy said that McCormack had arrived at a heliport on New York City's East River after a trip carrying one passenger from nearby Westchester County.
The passenger told investigators there was nothing out of the ordinary about the 15-minute flight, Brazy said.
McCormack waited at the heliport for about two hours and reviewed the weather before taking off on what was supposed to be a trip to the helicopter's home airport in Linden, New Jersey, Brazy said.
That trip would have taken the helicopter south, over the city's harbor and past the Statue of Liberty.
The helicopter hit the building about 11 minutes after taking off, in an area where flights aren't supposed to take place.
A flight restriction in effect since President Donald Trump took office prohibits aircraft from flying below 3,000 feet (914 meters) within a 1-mile (1.6 kilometer) radius of Trump Tower, only a few blocks from the crash site.
Helicopters going in and out of the heliport on Manhattan's East Side are only allowed to fly in the restricted area if they have permission and are communicating with air traffic control at LaGuardia Airport.
Brazy said the pilot never made such a request and didn't contact air traffic control.
It's unclear if authorities were aware before the crash that the helicopter had entered restricted air space.
"Those questions are part of our investigation," safety board spokesman Terry Williams said.
Brazy said McCormack's planned route to Linden wouldn't have required him to contact air traffic control. The helicopter was not equipped with a flight data recorder or a cockpit voice recorder, he said.
Asked if the weather may have played a factor, Brazy said "it is certainly one of the most interesting concerns we have."
"Should the helicopter have been flying? I do not know yet," he said.
The crashed helicopter was owned through a real estate firm and used for "executive travel," authorities said.
In New York City, helicopters giving tourists a whirlybird's eye view of landmarks account for the majority of take offs. Those flights were cut in half to about 30,000 a year under a 2016 deal between operators and the city, which runs two of Manhattan's three commercial heliports.
But a new Uber service is threatening to crowd the skies once more.
The ride-hailing service said last week it would start helicoptering passengers between Manhattan and Kennedy Airport at $200 a ride, drawing scrutiny from Velazquez and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, a Democrat, who asked: "Is that really necessary? Is it safe?"
John Dellaportas, the president of the Stop the Chop advocacy group, said only public safety and medical flights should be allowed.
"It's a bit like Groundhog Day that every time there's a deadly crash, politicians say great things and then everybody goes back to their business," said Dellaportas, a lawyer.
Sam Goldstein, a spokesman for New York's tourist helicopter industry, said operators "have already regulated themselves into a position where they're safe, predictable and a good neighbor."
McCormack, a former fire chief in upstate Clinton Corners, had 15 years of experience flying helicopters and single-engine airplanes and was certified as a flight instructor last year, according to FAA records.
McCormack was "a highly seasoned" and "very well regarded" pilot, Linden airport director Paul Dudley said.
Brazy said a salvage crew expected to start moving the wreckage from the roof Tuesday to a secure location, possibly by taking pieces down the stairs and elevator.
"The location — within the city and on top of the roof of a building — is probably the biggest challenge in the investigation," Brazy said.
Tapachula, Jun 12 (AP/UNB) — Mexican officials said Tuesday they are beginning deployment of the country's new National Guard for immigration enforcement, an accelerated commitment of a 6,000-strong force made as part of an agreement with the United States to head off threatened U.S. tariffs on imports from Mexico.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard also announced that a team of five officials, including a general and a prison director, has been formed to implement the immigration plan.
Ebrard said that Gen. Vicente Antonio Hernández Sánchez, commander of the Tapachula military zone near the border with Guatemala, will begin a tour of the south "to speed up the deployment in the area."
The main objective is to register migrants, offer them options for regularizing their immigration status and return those who don't want to register, he added.
The Associated Press has not yet seen any National Guard deployment in Tapachula, where soldiers and federal police have been working to support immigration agents. At the Suchiate River that forms the border between the two countries, the usual drip-drip of irregular crossings by small groups on rudimentary rafts continued.
Also Tuesday, Interior Secretary Olga Sánchez Cordero said the National Guard will not resemble the U.S. Border Patrol in the sense that it will work to regularize immigration flows, not stop it, and be deployed throughout the country.
Ebrard did not mention detentions, which have risen notably in recent months, but said there is a need to expand and improve overcrowded immigration facilities that operate as de facto detention centers.
He said later Tuesday at a news conference that the deployment would be "along the entire frontier."
Another deployment is going to the border with the United States to attend to migrants who have been returned to Mexico while their asylum claims are processed in U.S. courts.
As part of the deal reached last Friday with Washington, Mexico agreed to an expansion of the program known as Migrant Protection Protocol, though the United States has run into its own logistical obstacles to ramping it up.
Ebrard said it would be expanded from the current three border points to three more that will be decided in talks with the U.S. officials this week.
There have been more than 11,000 returns by migrants to Mexico under MPP since it launched in January, according to the most recent figures from the Mexican government.
Mexico's National Guard is a newly formed force tasked with policing rising insecurity. It is separate from the military and is legally supposed to be under civilian command, though it is largely made up of current or former soldiers and federal police.
The Guard was created for reasons of national security, Sánchez Cordero said, and "the entry of irregular migrants is part of our national security. For that reason we want an orderly and safe migration."
"We also have the right for our laws to be respected," she said, "and to take care of our border.