DUBAI, July 7 A U.S. navy ship that had been
slated for decommissioning has been sent instead to the Gulf to
help mine-clearing operations, the U.S. Fifth Fleet based in
Bahrain said, the latest move in a gradual U.S. build-up as
tensions with Iran smoulder.
A fleet spokesman in Manama said the USS Ponce, described as
a "afloat forward staging base" (AFSB), had arrived on Thursday
after undergoing refitting for its new mission.
"Ponce's primary mission is to support mine countermeasures
operations and other missions, such as the ability to provide
repair service to other deployed units," the spokesman said in a
statement. "Additionally, Ponce also has the capability to
embark and launch small riverine craft."
Vice Admiral John Miller, commander of regional navy forces,
said the Ponce boasted "enhanced capability to conduct maritime
security operations, and gives us greater flexibility to support
a wide range of contingencies with our regional partners".
Four U.S. minesweepers arrived in the Gulf last month to
bolster the Fifth Fleet and ensure the safety of shipping routes
in a waterway through which 40 percent of the world's seaborne
oil exports flow.
They arrived amid a flaring war of nerves between the United
States and Iran over Tehran's disputed nuclear energy programme
and Iranian threats to block the Strait of Hormuz, the slender
oil shipping channel out of the Gulf, in retaliation for a new
European Union ban on its oil exports.
The four minesweepers were ticketed for a seven-month
deployment in an area of operations that includes the Gulf, Gulf
of Oman, Red Sea and parts of the Indian Ocean.
Tensions have simmered in the Gulf with big-power diplomacy
to ease the nuclear dispute at an impasse and Israel renewing
veiled threats to attack Iranian atomic sites from the air if
sanctions and negotiations fail to curb Iran's nuclear advances.
A string of hawkish Iranian statements - including a renewed
threat to close the Strait and destroy U.S. bases in the region
"within minutes" of an attack - over the past week helped thrust
benchmark Brent crude oil prices above $100 for the first time
Iran has repeatedly warned of reprisals for any Israeli or
U.S.-led strike on its nuclear installations, whose activities
it says are purely peaceful but the West suspects are geared to
developing the means to produce nuclear arms.
(Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Mark Heinrich)