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Ship crews robbed in Gulf off Iraqi oil hub Basra

BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) - Gunmen robbed the crews of four ships anchored off Iraq’s southern oil hub Basra last week in Iraqi regional waters patrolled by the U.S. Navy, a Navy official said on Sunday.

The attackers targeted the Antigua-flagged Arminia, North Korea’s Crystal Wave, Syria’s Sana Star and the American ship Sagamore last Sunday and took personal belongings from the crews, Lieutenant John Fage of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet said.

“All four attacks occurred from roughly 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. on August 8,” Fage said.

The line between insurgent attacks and crime in Iraq has becoming increasingly blurred as militants turn to robbery to fund their operations seven years after the U.S.-led invasion unleashed a wave of violence.

Iraq sees about 15 attacks by suspected Sunni Islamist insurgents or Shi’ite militia every day as the U.S. military prepares to halt combat operations formally on August 31 ahead of a full withdrawal next year. U.S. officials say there will be about 50,000 American troops in Iraq by month’s end.

Seaborne attacks have been quite rare.

The ship robberies took place about 145 km (90 miles) from the port at Basra, one of Iraq’s largest cities and the heart of the oil industry.

Iraq is counting on oil sales, which provide about 95 percent of federal revenues, to supply the billions of dollars needed to rebuild after years of war, international sanctions and economic decline.

The attacks did not qualify as piracy under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea because they took place in Iraqi regional waters and not on the high seas.

Fage said the crew of the Sagamore reported that two men armed with AK-47s had boarded the ship.

He said the gunmen were not caught.

But an Iraqi border guard source said two of the attackers were arrested, while the rest fled to Iranian waters.

Salah Aboud, the head of the state-run Iraqi ports company, said he understood two suspects had been apprehended.

“No damages occurred and everything that was taken has been returned,” Aboud said.

Reporting by Aref Mohammed, additional reporting by Serena Chaudhry and Aseel Kami in Baghdad; Editing by Jim Loney and Michael Roddy