Tanker attacks in Gulf of Oman fuel security, oil supply fears

An oil tanker is seen after it was attacked at the Gulf of Oman, June 13, 2019. ISNA/Handout via REUTERS

By Lisa Barrington and Rania El Gamal

DUBAI (Reuters) – Attacks on two oil tankers on Thursday in the Gulf of Oman left one ablaze and both adrift, shipping firms said, driving oil prices up 4% over worries about Middle East supplies.

The Front Altair was on fire in waters between Gulf Arab states and Iran after an explosion that a source blamed on a magnetic mine. The crew of the Norwegian vessel were picked up by a vessel in the area and passed to an Iranian rescue boat.

A second Japanese-owned tanker was abandoned after being hit by a suspected torpedo, the firm that chartered the ship said. The crew were also picked up.

The attacks were the second in a month near the Strait of Hormuz, a major strategic waterway for world oil supplies.

The United States and Saudi Arabia blamed Iran for last month’s attacks using limpet mines on four tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, a charge Tehran denies.

There were no immediate statements apportioning blame after Thursday’s incidents.

“We need to remember that some 30% of the world’s (seaborne) crude oil passes through the straits. If the waters are becoming unsafe, the supply to the entire Western world could be at risk,” said Paolo Amico, chairman of INTERTANKO tanker association.

Tensions have risen since President Donald Trump, who has demanded Tehran curb its military programs and influence in the Middle East, pulled the United States out of a deal between Iran and global powers to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

Thursday’s attacks came as Shinzo Abe – prime minister of U.S. ally Japan, a big importer of Iranian oil until Washington ratcheted up sanctions – was visiting Tehran with a message from Trump. Abe urged all sides not to let tensions escalate.

The Bahrain-based U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet said it was assisting the two tankers on Thursday after receiving distress calls. Britain said it was “deeply concerned” about Thursday’s reported explosions and was working with partners on the issue.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif described Thursday’s incidents as “suspicious” on Twitter, noting they occurred during Abe’s Tehran visit. The minister called for regional dialogue.

Oman and the United Arab Emirates, which both have coastlines along the Gulf of Oman, did not immediately issue any public comment.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both majority Sunni Muslim nations with a long-running rivalry with predominantly Shi’ite Iran, have previously said attacks on oil assets in the Gulf pose a risk to global oil supplies and regional security.

An oil tanker is seen after it was attacked at the Gulf of Oman, June 13, 2019. ISNA/Handout via REUTERS

An oil tanker is seen after it was attacked at the Gulf of Oman, June 13, 2019. ISNA/Handout via REUTERS

EXPLOSION

Bernhard Schulte Ship management said the Kokuka Courageous was damaged in a “suspected attack” that breached the hull above the waterline while transporting methanol from Saudi Arabia to Singapore.

It said the ship was afloat and the crew safe with one minor injury reported.

A shipping broker said the blast that struck the Kokuka Courageous might have been caused by a magnetic mine. “Kokuka Courageous is adrift without any crew on board,” the source said.

Japan’s Kokuka Sangyo, owner of the Kokuka Courageous, said its ship was hit twice over a three-hour period.

Taiwan’s state oil refiner CPC said the Front Altair, owned by Norway’s Frontline, was “suspected of being hit by a torpedo” around 0400 GMT carrying a Taiwan-bound cargo of 75,000 tonnes of petrochemical feedstock naphtha, which Refinitiv Eikon data showed had been picked up from Ruwais in the UAE.

Frontline said its vessel was on fire but afloat, denying a report by the Iranian news agency IRNA that the vessel had sunk.

Front Altair’s 23-member crew abandoned ship after the blast and were picked up by the nearby Hyundai Dubai vessel. The crew was then passed to an Iranian rescue boat, Hyundai Merchant Marine said in a statement.

Iranian search and rescue teams picked up 44 sailors from the two damaged tankers and took them to the Iranian port of Jask, Iran’s IRNA reported.

Thursday’s attacks came a day after Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis fired a missile on an airport in Saudi Arabia, injuring 26 people. The Houthis also claimed an armed drone strike last month on Saudi oil pumping stations.

Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei told Abe during his visit to Iran that Tehran would not repeat its “bitter experience” of negotiating with the United States, state media reported.

“I do not see Trump as worthy of any message exchange, and I do not have any reply for him, now or in future,” the Iranian leader said.

(Reporting by Koustav Samanta and Jessica Jaganathan in Singapore, Liang-Sa Loh and Yimou Lee in Taipei, Terje Solsvik in Oslo, Ghaida Ghantous in Dubai, Hyunjoo Jin in Seoul and Jonathan Saul in London; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Jon Boyle and Alison Williams)

Trump, Saudi Arabia warn Iran against Middle East conflict

FILE PHOTO: Saudi Arabia's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir speaks during a news conference with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (not pictured) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia March 4, 2019. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser

By Marwa Rashad and Stephen Kalin

RIYADH (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump issued a new threat to Tehran on Sunday, tweeting that a conflict would be the “official end” of Iran, as Saudi Arabia warned it stood ready to respond with “all strength” and said it was up to Iran to avoid war.

The heightened rhetoric follows last week’s attacks on Saudi oil assets and the firing of a rocket on Sunday into Baghdad’s heavily fortified “Green Zone” that exploded near the U.S. embassy.

“If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!” Trump said in a tweet without elaborating.

A U.S. State Department official said the rocket attack in Baghdad did not hit a U.S.-inhabited facility and produced no casualties nor any significant damage. No claims of responsibility had been made, but the United States was taking the incident “very seriously.”

FILE PHOTO: A damaged Andrea Victory ship is seen off the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A damaged Andrea Victory ship is seen off the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar/File Photo

“We have made clear over the past two weeks and again underscore that attacks on U.S. personnel and facilities will not be tolerated and will be responded to in a decisive manner,” the official said in an emailed statement. “We will hold Iran responsible if any such attacks are conducted by its proxy militia forces or elements of such forces, and will respond to Iran accordingly.”

Riyadh, which emphasized that it does not want a war, has accused Tehran of ordering Tuesday’s drone strikes on two oil pumping stations in the kingdom, claimed by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi group. Two days earlier, four vessels, including two Saudi oil tankers, were sabotaged off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.

In response, countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) began “enhanced security patrols” in the international waters of the Arabian Gulf area on Saturday, the U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet said on Sunday.

Iran has denied involvement in either incident, which come as Washington and the Islamic Republic spar over sanctions and the U.S. military presence in the region, raising concerns about a potential U.S.-Iran conflict.

“The kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not want a war in the region nor does it seek that,” Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir told a news conference on Sunday.

“It will do what it can to prevent this war and at the same time it reaffirms that in the event the other side chooses war, the kingdom will respond with all force and determination, and it will defend itself and its interests.”

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on Sunday invited Gulf and Arab leaders to convene emergency summits in Mecca on May 30 to discuss implications of the attacks.

“The current critical circumstances entail a unified Arab and Gulf stance toward the besetting challenges and risks,” the UAE foreign ministry said in a statement.

The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet said in its statement about increased maritime patrols that GCC countries were “specifically increasing communication and coordination with each other in support of regional naval cooperation and maritime security operations in the Arabian Gulf,” with navies and coast guards working with the U.S. Navy.

Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Muslim ally the UAE has not blamed anyone for the tanker sabotage operation, pending an investigation. No-one has claimed responsibility, but two U.S. government sources said last week that U.S. officials believed Iran had encouraged the Houthi group or Iraq-based Shi’ite militias to carry it out.

The drone strike on oil pumping stations, which Riyadh said did not disrupt output or exports, was claimed by the Houthis, who have been battling a Saudi-led military coalition in a war in Yemen since 2015.

FILE PHOTO: A damaged ANDREA VICTORY ship is seen off the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A damaged ANDREA VICTORY ship is seen off the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar/File Photo

The Houthi-controled SABA news agency said on Sunday, citing a military source from the group, that targeting Aramco’s installations last week was the beginning of coming military operations against 300 vital military targets.

Targets include vital military headquarters and facilities in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, as well as their bases in Yemen, the source told SABA.

The head of the Houthis’ Supreme Revolutionary Committee, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, derided Riyadh’s call to convene Arab summits, saying in a Twitter post that they “only know how to support war and destruction”.

A Norwegian insurers’ report seen by Reuters said Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were “highly likely” to have facilitated the attack on vessels near the UAE’s Fujairah emirate, a main bunkering hub lying just outside the Strait of Hormuz.

SAUDI PRINCE CALLS POMPEO

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has dismissed the possibility of war erupting, saying Tehran did not want conflict and no country had the “illusion it can confront Iran”. This stance was echoed by the head of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards on Sunday.

“We are not pursuing war but we are also not afraid of war,” Major General Hossein Salami was cited as saying by the semi-official news agency Tasnim.

Washington has tightened economic sanctions against Iran, trying to cut Tehran’s oil exports to zero, and beefed up the U.S. military presence in the Gulf in response to what it said were Iranian threats to United States troops and interests.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman discussed regional developments, including efforts to strengthen security and stability, in a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Saudi Media Ministry tweeted on Sunday.

“We want peace and stability in the region but we will not sit on our hands in light of the continuing Iranian attack,” Jubeir said. “The ball is in Iran’s court and it is up to Iran to determine what its fate will be.”

He said the crew of an Iranian oil tanker that had been towed to Saudi Arabia early this month after a request for help due to engine trouble were still in the kingdom receiving the “necessary care”. The crew are 24 Iranians and two Bangladeshis.

Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran are arch-adversaries in the Middle East, backing opposite sides in several regional wars. In a sign of the heightened tension, Exxon Mobil evacuated foreign staff from an oilfield in neighboring Iraq.

Bahrain on Saturday warned its citizens against travel to Iraq and Iran and asked those already there to return. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has issued an advisory to U.S. commercial airliners flying over the waters of the Gulf and the Gulf of Oman to exercise caution.

(Additional reporting by Lisa Barrington in Dubai, Nandita Bose in Washington, Ali Abdelaty in Cairo, Babak Dehghanpisheh in Geneva; Writing by Stephen Kalin, Ghaida Ghantous and David Lawder; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, Mark Potter, Chris Reese and Sandra Maler)

Saudi Arabia says oil facilities outside Riyadh attacked

A technical staff is seen at the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar

By Stephen Kalin and Rania El Gamal

RIYADH/DUBAI (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia said armed drones had struck two oil pumping stations in the kingdom on Tuesday in what it called a “cowardly” act of terrorism two days after Saudi oil tankers were sabotaged off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.

The energy minister of the world’s largest oil exporter said the attack caused a fire, now contained, and minor damage at one pump station, but did not disrupt oil production or exports of crude and petroleum products.

Oil prices spiked on news of the attack on the stations, more than 200 miles (320 km) west of the capital Riyadh. Brent crude futures rose 1.38% to trade at $71.20 by 1114 GMT.

Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih, in comments run by state media, said the drone attack and Sunday’s sabotage of four vessels, including two Saudi tankers, off Fujairah emirate, a major bunkering hub, threatened global oil supplies.

“These attacks prove again that it is important for us to face terrorist entities, including the Houthi militias in Yemen that are backed by Iran,” Falih said in an English-language statement issued by his ministry.

Houthi-run Masirah TV earlier said the group had launched drone attacks on “vital” Saudi installations in response to “continued aggression and blockade” on Yemen.

A Saudi-led coalition has been battling the Houthis for four years in Yemen to try to restore the internationally recognized government, in a conflict widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The Houthis have repeatedly launched drone and missile attacks on Saudi cities, but two Saudi sources told Reuters this was the first time an Aramco facility was hit by drones.

State-run Aramco said it had temporarily shut down the East-West pipeline, known as Petroline, to evaluate its condition. The pipeline mainly transports crude from the kingdom’s eastern fields to Yanbu port, which lies north of Bab al-Mandeb.

The attacks occur amid a war of words between Washington and Tehran over sanctions and U.S. military presence in the region.

The Saudi stock index, which suffered two days of heavy losses, opened 1.5% higher but was trading down 0.3% at 1200 GMT. A Saudi-based banker told Reuters that state funds were supporting local stocks to limit the downside.

IRAN IN FOCUS

The UAE has not revealed details about the nature of the attack on ships near Fujairah port, which lies just outside the Strait of Hormuz, or blamed any party or country.

Iran was a prime suspect in the sabotage on Sunday although Washington had no conclusive proof, a U.S. official familiar with American intelligence said on Monday.

Iran has denied involvement and described the attack on the four commercial vessels as “worrisome and dreadful”. It has called for an investigation.

The U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia said Washington should take what he called “reasonable responses short of war” after it had determined who was behind the attacks near Fujairah.

“We need to do a thorough investigation to understand what happened, why it happened, and then come up with reasonable responses short of war,” Ambassador John Abizaid told reporters in the Saudi capital Riyadh in remarks published on Tuesday.

“It’s not in (Iran’s) interest, it’s not in our interest, it’s not in Saudi Arabia’s interest to have a conflict.”

The U.S. embassy in the UAE advised its citizens to maintain a high level of vigilance on heightened tensions in the region.

Washington has increased sanctions on Tehran, saying it wants to reduce Iranian oil exports to zero, after quitting the 2015 nuclear pact between Iran and global powers last year.

The U.S. Maritime Administration said last week that Iran could target U.S. commercial ships including oil tankers sailing through Middle East waterways. Tehran has called the U.S. military presence “a target” rather than a threat.

A fifth of global oil consumption passes through the Strait of Hormuz from Middle East crude producers to markets in Asia, Europe, North America and beyond. The narrow waterway separates Iran from the Arabian Peninsula.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards threatened last month to close the chokepoint if Tehran was barred from using it.

U.S. President Donald Trump wants to force Tehran to agree a broader arms control accord and has sent an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Gulf in a show of force against what U.S. officials have said are threats to U.S. troops in the region.

(Additional reporting by Alexander Cornwell, Asma Alsharif, Aziz El Yaakoubi and Davide Barbuscia in Dubai; Writing by Stephen Kalin and Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Angus MacSwan, William Maclean)

Iranian lawmaker blames ‘Israeli mischief’ for tanker attacks off UAE coast

FILE PHOTO: A damaged ANDREA VICTORY ship is seen off the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar

GENEVA (Reuters) – The tanker attacks off the coast of the United Arab Emirates were “Israeli mischief,” an Iranian parliamentary spokesman said on Tuesday, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).

“The events that took place in the Emirates were Israeli mischief,” Behrouz Nemati said, without providing any details on what role Israel may have played in the attacks.

Saudi Arabia said on Monday that two of its oil tankers were among those attacked off the coast of the Emirates and described it as an attempt to undermine the security of crude supplies amid tensions between the United States and Iran.

The UAE said on Sunday that four commercial vessels were sabotaged near Fujairah emirate, one of the world’s largest bunkering hubs lying just outside the Strait of Hormuz. It did not describe the nature of the attack or say who was behind it.

(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh, editing by Louise Heavens)

Saudi Arabia says its oil tankers among those hit by attack off UAE coast

General view of the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar

By Rania El Gamal and Bozorgmehr Sharafedin

DUBAI/LONDON (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia said on Monday that two of its oil tankers were among those attacked off the coast of the United Arab Emirates and described it as an attempt to undermine the security of crude supplies amid tensions between the United States and Iran.

The UAE said on Sunday that four commercial vessels were sabotaged near Fujairah emirate, one of the world’s largest bunkering hubs lying just outside the Strait of Hormuz. It did not describe the nature of the attack or say who was behind it.

The UAE had not given the nationalities or other details about the ownership of the four vessels. Riyadh has identified two of them as Saudi and a Norwegian company said it owned another. Reuters images showed the fourth vessel was the UAE-flagged A. Michel, a fuel bunker barge.

Thome Ship Management said its Norwegian-registered oil products tanker MT Andrew Victory was “struck by an unknown object”. Footage seen by Reuters showed a hole in the hull at the waterline with the metal torn open inwards.

A Reuters witness said divers were inspecting the damaged ships on Monday.

Iran, which is embroiled in an escalating war of words with the United States over sanctions and the U.S. military’s presence in the region, moved to distance itself on Monday.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry called the incidents “worrisome and dreadful” and asked for an investigation into the matter.

A senior Iranian lawmaker said, “saboteurs from a third country” could be behind it, after saying on Sunday the incident showed the security of Gulf states was fragile.

Highlighting international concerns, Britain’s Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt warned of the risks of “a conflict happening by accident” with an unintended escalation between Washington and Tehran over an unraveling nuclear deal.

Washington withdrew last year from a 2015 pact between Iran and global powers aimed at reining in Tehran’s nuclear plans. Since then, the United States has ratcheted up sanctions on Iran, saying it wanted to reduce its oil exports to zero.

UAE LAUNCHES PROBE

A fifth of global oil consumption passes through the Strait of Hormuz from Middle East crude producers to major markets in Asia, Europe, North America and beyond. The narrow waterway separates Iran from the Arabian Peninsula.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, designated a terrorist organization by the United States, threatened last month to close the chokepoint if Tehran was barred from using it.

Oil prices rose on Monday, with Brent crude futures at $72.08 a barrel by 1416 GMT, up $2.07.

Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said that one of the two Saudi vessels was attacked in the UAE economic zone on its way to be loaded with Saudi crude from Ras Tanura port for delivery to state-owned Aramco’s customers in the United States.

The attack did not cause any casualties or an oil spill but caused significant damage to the vessels’ structures, he said in a statement.

Trading and shipping sources identified the Saudi vessels as very large crude carrier (VLCC) tanker Amjad and crude tanker Al Marzoqah, both owned by Saudi shipping firm Bahri, which did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

The UAE Foreign Ministry had said there were no casualties and the Fujairah port operations were normal. An investigation was launched in coordination with international authorities, it said, calling on global powers to prevent any parties trying to harm maritime safety and security.

Dubai and Abu Dhabi stock markets suffered their biggest single-day declines in years on Monday, with Dubai falling 3.97%. Saudi shares lost 3.55%.

OIL SECURITY

Sunni Muslim allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE have backed U.S. sanctions against Shi’ite Iran, a fellow OPEC producer but regional foe. After the United States ended all sanctions waivers that had allowed some nations to continue importing Iranian crude, Washington said Riyadh and Abu Dhabi would help compensate for any shortage in oil supply.

Falih said the attack aimed to undermine maritime freedom and the security of oil supplies to consumers worldwide.

“The international community has a joint responsibility to protect the safety of maritime navigation and the security of oil tankers, to mitigate against the adverse consequences of such incidents on energy markets and the danger they pose to the global economy,” he said.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said the incident “has a negative impact on maritime transportation security” and asked regional countries to be “vigilant against destabilizing plots of foreign agents”, the semi-official ISNA news agency reported.

The U.S. Maritime Administration said in an advisory on Sunday that incidents off Fujairah, one of the seven emirates that make up the UAE, had not been confirmed and urged caution.

The Maritime Administration had said earlier this month that U.S. commercial ships including oil tankers sailing through Middle East waterways could be targeted by Iran in one of the threats to U.S. interests posed by Tehran.

Washington said it was sending a U.S. aircraft carrier and other forces to the Middle East due to what it said were Iranian threats, while Tehran has called the U.S. military presence “a target” rather than a threat. Iran has said it would not allow its oil exports to be halted.

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Saul and Robin Emmott in London, Saeed Azhar in Dubai and Oslo newsroom; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Edmund Blair and Mark Potter)

U.N. investigator calls on Saudi Arabia to open Khashoggi murder trial

FILE PHOTO: A demonstrator holds a poster with a picture of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi outside the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, Turkey October 25, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s secretive hearings for 11 suspects accused in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi fall short of international standards and should be open to the public and trial observers, a U.N. human rights expert said on Thursday.

Agnes Callamard, U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, who leads an international inquiry into the murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October, called on the kingdom to reveal the defendants’ names and the fate of 10 others initially arrested.

“The Government of Saudi Arabia is grievously mistaken if it believes that these proceedings, as currently constituted, will satisfy the international community, either in terms of procedural fairness under international standards or in terms of the validity of their conclusions,” she said in a statement.

The Saudi public prosecutor indicted 11 unnamed suspects in November, including five who could face the death penalty on charges of ordering and committing the crime.

The CIA and some Western countries believe Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing, which Saudi officials deny.

Saud al-Qahtani, a top aide to Prince Mohammed fired over the killing, is not among the 11 suspects on trial at secretive hearings in Riyadh despite Saudi pledges to bring those responsible to justice, sources familiar with the matter told Reuters on Sunday.

Callamard, referring to diplomats from world powers on the U.N. Security Council who have attended some of the four hearings thusfar warned: “They risk being participants in a potential miscarriage of justice, possibly complicit should it be shown that the trials are marred by violations of human rights law”.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

‘No regrets’: Saudi sisters hope for bright future after hiding in Hong Kong

Sisters from Saudi Arabia, who go by aliases Reem and Rawan, are pictured in Hong Kong, China March 20, 2019. REUTERS/Yuyang Wang

By Anne Marie Roantree and James Pomfret

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Two Saudi Arabian sisters are hoping for a “bright, beautiful future” after being granted asylum, fleeing what they describe as an abusive family and a repressive society.

The sisters fled from their family last September while on holiday in Sri Lanka and have been stranded in Hong Kong since an aborted attempt to get to Australia, where they hoped to secure asylum.

For reasons of safety, the sisters, aged 18 and 20, who say they were beaten by their father and brothers, asked that their names and faces not be revealed, nor the country to which they have now gone.

“Oh my God, I was so happy,” the curly haired younger sister told Reuters recently, describing how she felt when told asylum had been secured.

“I screamed ‘It’s real, it’s happening’ … It was just relief and unforgettable.”

The sisters spoke to Reuters in a room on the 22nd floor of a Hong Kong hotel shortly before they left the city. Hong Kong-based rights lawyer, Michael Vidler, who has been helping them, attended.

They said they had lived in fear for six months, shuttling between 15 safe houses, staying with a nun, families and at a shelter for abused women.

They feared being intercepted by Saudi officials or relatives and forced to return home, where they believe they could be punished for renouncing Islam, which is punishable by death under the Saudi system of Islamic law.

The Saudi consulate in Hong Kong has not responded to requests for comment.

In a statement late on Monday, Vidler confirmed the sisters had successfully traveled to a third country on “humanitarian visas”.

“To ensure their future security we will not be disclosing the third country where the sisters are now living, nor will we be providing any further details,” he wrote on the Facebook page of his law firm. “The sisters will not be giving any further media interviews.”

The sisters said they were treated harshly, at times beaten, by their brothers and father.

“They were like my jailer, like my prison officer. I was like a prisoner,” the younger sister previously told Reuters.

‘NO REGRET’

They were also critical of Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system that requires women to have a male relative’s permission to work, travel, marry, and even get some medical treatment.

“Women are just like slaves,” said the older sister, adding that her dream was to become a writer one day.

“I want to settle down and to feel safe, and (to know) that I have rights and I matter in that country. Just to live normal, and discover myself … because now I own my life.”

This is not the first case in Asia this year of young Saudi women fleeing what they said was repression.

In January, an 18-year-old Saudi woman was granted asylum in Canada after fleeing her family and barricading herself in a Bangkok hotel to resist being sent home.

Her case drew global attention to Saudi Arabia’s strict social rules, which rights groups say can trap women and girls as prisoners of abusive families.

The Saudi mission in Bangkok declined to comment on that case saying it was a family affair.

The kingdom has given women more rights in recent years. Women have been allowed to enter sports stadiums, vote in local elections, and take a greater role in the workforce as Saudi Arabia tries to diversify its oil-dependent economy.

A ban on driving was lifted last year but many women have taken to social media to push for more freedom. Campaigners say the main sticking point remains the guardianship policy.

‘FIND YOUR LIGHT’

Riyadh has also faced scrutiny from Western allies over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October and over the humanitarian consequences of its war in Yemen.

The sisters watched the news of Khashoggi’s death unfold while in hiding in Hong Kong.

“I said to my sister, ‘I’m glad we left. This is the country we left’, there is no regret at all,” said the older sister, who counts George Orwell’s “1984” as one of her favorite books and likened its dystopian society to her homeland.

“It’s a science fiction book but it’s real in Saudi,” she said.

The pair hatched their escape plan over several years, secretly hoarding about $5,000, partly by scrimping on items they were given money to buy, and had timed it to coincide with the younger sister’s 18th birthday.

They said they had been wracked with uncertainty as a deadline for them to leave Chinese-ruled Hong Kong passed last month. Amnesty International had urged Hong Kong authorities not to return the sisters to Saudi Arabia.

The younger sister, who counts Radiohead and Queen among her favorite bands, said she hoped to inspire young people to stand against social injustice.

“Don’t just stick to the wall and cry. Because if you would cry it would be worse … Fight in your own way and you will find your own light.”

Dressed in a red T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, she said she had no regrets.

“There’s a bright, beautiful future awaiting me.”

(Reporting by James Pomfret and Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Robert Birsel and Clarence Fernandez)

Oil prices hit 2019 highs on OPEC cuts and U.S. sanctions

FILE PHOTO: Pumpjacks are seen against the setting sun at the Daqing oil field in Heilongjiang province, China December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Stringe

By Dmitry Zhdannikov

LONDON (Reuters) – Oil prices rose to new 2019 highs on Tuesday, supported by OPEC supply cuts and falling output from Iran and Venezuela because of U.S. sanctions.

Brent crude oil futures were up 16 cents at $67.70 a barrel at 1415 GMT, having earlier risen to a 2019 peak of $68.20, their highest since November 2018.

U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) futures were at $59.17, up 8 cents from their last settlement. They also touched their highest since November at $59.57.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries on Monday scrapped its planned meeting in April, effectively extending supply cuts that have been in place since January until its next regular meeting in June.

OPEC and a group of non-affiliated producers including Russia, known as OPEC+, cut supply in 2019 to halt a sharp price drop that began in the second-half of 2018 on booming U.S. production and fears of a global economic slowdown.

Saudi Arabia has signaled that OPEC and its allies could continue to restrain oil output until the end of 2019.

“The OPEC+ deal has brought stability to crude prices and signs of an extension have taken crude higher,” said Alfonso Esparza, senior market analyst at futures brokerage OANDA.

Prices have been further supported by U.S. sanctions against oil exports from Iran and Venezuela, traders said.

Venezuela has suspended its oil exports to India, one of its key export destinations, the Azeri energy ministry said on Tuesday, citing Venezuela’s oil minister.

Because of the tighter supply outlook for the coming months, the Brent forward curve has gone into backwardation since the start of the year, meaning that prices for immediate delivery are more expensive than those for dispatch in the future. May Brent prices were around $1.20 a barrel more expensive than for December delivery.

(GRAPHIC: Brent crude oil forward curves – https://tmsnrt.rs/2FlM7YZ)

Outside OPEC, analysts are watching U.S. crude oil production that has risen by more than 2 million barrels per day (bpd) since early 2018, to about 12 million bpd, making the United States the world’s biggest producer ahead of Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Weekly output and storage data will be published by the Energy Information Administration (EIA) on Wednesday.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch said that economic “risks are skewed to the downside” and it is forecasting global demand growth of 1.2 million bpd year on year in 2019 and 1.15 million bpd in 2020.

The bank said it expects Brent and WTI to average $70 and $59 a barrel respectively in 2019 and $65 and $60 a barrel in 2020.

(Reporting by Henning Gloystein; Editing Joseph Radford and David Goodman)

Saudi rights official dismisses Khashoggi inquiry as foreign interference

FILE PHOTO: Turkish police forensic experts and plainclothes police officers stand at the entrance of a villa in the Samanli village of the Termal district in the northwestern province of Yalova, Turkey, November 26, 2018, as police search inside in relation to the investigation into the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. REUTERS/Osman Orsal/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – The head of the state-backed Saudi human rights commission dismissed an international investigation into the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi as interference on Thursday, and said everyone accused was already facing justice in the kingdom.

Bandar bin Mohammed al-Aiban made the comments as Turkey’s Justice Ministry said Interpol had issued red notices – asking police worldwide to locate and provisionally arrest a person pending extradition – for 20 people regarding Khashoggi’s death.

Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, provoking an international outcry.

In his remarks, the first substantive comments on the case by Saudi Arabia at a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council, Aiban said those on trial for what he described both as an “unfortunate accident” and a “heinous crime” had attended three hearings so far with their lawyers present. He gave no names or other details.

Three dozen Western countries, including all 28 European Union members, called on the kingdom last week to cooperate with a U.N.-led investigation.

But Aiban said Saudi Arabia would not accept what he termed as foreign interference in its domestic affairs and judicial system.

“Justice in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia operates pursuant to international law and it does so in all transparency,” Aiban told the Geneva forum during a review of Saudi Arabia’s rights record.

“We are indeed horrified by what has happened pursuant to this unfortunate accident and we have taken those measures required for us to resolve this heinous crime,” added Aiban, who headed the official Saudi delegation at the hearing.

The Turkish Justice Ministry said it had requested Interpol red notices for 18 people on Nov. 15 and for two more on Dec. 21 without identifying the individuals. The notices were issued on March 1, it said.

Interpol declined to comment.

Ankara has repeatedly pressed Riyadh to reveal more details of the killing. It said earlier on Thursday that Saudi authorities should disclose the names of defendants and the charges they face if it wanted to avoid questions over the “sincerity of judicial proceedings in the kingdom”.

It also criticized Aiban’s rejection of any foreign investigation. “We find it difficult to understand why an official working in the area of human rights would possibly be unsettled by efforts to shed light on all aspects of the Khashoggi murder,” the Turkish presidency said.

Riyadh has rejected accusations by the CIA and some Western countries that the crown prince ordered the killing.

After making numerous contradictory statements, it said Khashoggi was killed after negotiations to persuade him to return to Saudi Arabia failed – and later that 11 Saudis had been indicted and referred for trial over the case, without identifying them.

The public prosecutor is seeking the death penalty for five of them.

The killing has severely strained ties between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, although Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has good ties with the Saudi monarch, King Salman.

(Reporting by Tom Miles, Stephanie Nebehay and Orhan Coskun, Ece Toksabay in Ankara; Writing by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, Andrew Heavens and Frances Kerry)

U.S. senators say Saudi crown prince has gone ‘full gangster’

Retired four-star Army General John Abizaid testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing to be U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 6, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Retired Army General John Abizaid, U.S. President Donald Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to Saudi Arabia, defended the U.S.-Saudi relationship on Wednesday as lawmakers accused the kingdom of a litany of misdeeds and criticized its crown prince as going “full gangster.”

Senators at Abizaid’s confirmation hearing, Trump’s fellow Republicans as well as Democrats, condemned the kingdom’s conduct in the civil war in Yemen, heavy-handed diplomacy and rights abuses including torturing women’s rights activists and the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Abizaid called for accountability for the murder of Khashoggi, a U.S. resident, and support for human rights, but repeatedly stressed the importance of Washington-Riyadh ties.

Despite increasing tension between the two countries, the United States has not had an ambassador there since Trump became president in January 2017.

“In the long run, we need a strong and mature partnership with Saudi Arabia,” Abizaid told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It is in our interests to make sure that the relationship is sound.”

Abizaid, a retired four-star Army general, led U.S. Central Command during the Iraq war. Expected to easily win Senate confirmation, he was praised by senators from both parties at the hearing.

Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of the Riyadh government, was killed at a Saudi consulate in Turkey in October. His death fueled simmering discontent in Washington over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and heavy civilian casualties in Yemen’s civil war, where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

The House of Representatives has passed a war powers resolution that would end all U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition, but Abizaid said the Trump administration believes strongly that U.S. support should continue.

“Doing so bolsters the self-defense capabilities of our partners and reduces the risk of harm to civilians,” Abizaid said.

‘FULL GANGSTER’

The measure passed the Senate last year, but must go through the chamber again this year to be sent to the White House, where Trump is expected to issue a veto. However, its support in Congress is considered a strong rebuke of Riyadh.

Lawmakers have been strongly critical of Mohammed bin Salman, the powerful Saudi crown prince. Some blame him for Khashoggi’s killing and other human rights abuses.

Eleven suspects have been indicted in Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s murder, and last month a top Saudi official rejected accusations that the crown prince ordered the killing.

Republican Senator Jim Risch, the committee’s chairman, said Washington needed to send a strong message to Saudi Arabia about actions that he said are complicating the relationship.

“It’s going to have to be addressed by the Saudis and by the Crown Prince,” Risch said.

“The Crown Prince has launched Saudi Arabia into a devastating war in Yemen, isolated Qatar, threatening Gulf cooperation and coordination against threats from Iran and regional terrorist groups, detained and tortured members of his own family and effectively hoodwinked and intimidated the Lebanese prime minister,” said Senator Bob Menendez, the committee’s top Democrat.

As Abizaid’s hearing continued, at least two Republicans said bin Salman had gone “full gangster.”

One, Republican Marco Rubio, cited a long list of actions including the imprisonment of women’s rights activists and the 2017 detention of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri.

Abizaid said in prepared remarks that the Islamic State militant group has been “nearly vanquished on the ground,” but remains a “potent threat” to the United States and its allies.

While contradicted by some U.S. military and intelligence officials, Trump has declared that Islamic State has been driven out of all its territory since announcing in December that he would withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. He claimed that U.S.-led forces had succeeded in their mission to defeat the militant group.

Since then, Trump has decided to leave hundreds of U.S. troops in the country over the longer run.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Jeffrey Benkoe)