U.S. Navy says mine fragments suggest Iran behind Gulf tanker attack

An Emirati official watches members of the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet as they prepare to escort journalists to the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous tanker at a U.S. NAVCENT facility near the port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates June 19, 2019. REUTERS/Christopher Pike

By Aziz El Yaakoubi

FUJAIRAH, United Arab Emirates (Reuters) – The United States sought on Wednesday to bolster its case for isolating Iran over its nuclear and regional activities by showing limpet mine fragments it said came from a damaged oil tanker and saying the ordinance looked Iranian in origin.

The Islamic Republic has denied involvement in explosive strikes on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman last week and four tankers off the United Arab Emirates on May 12, both near the Strait of Hormuz, a major conduit for global oil supplies.

But the incidents have fueled tensions that broke out with the U.S. pullout last year from world powers’ 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, followed by fresh U.S. sanctions to stifle Tehran’s vital oil trade, and a retaliatory Iranian threat this week to resume uranium enrichment in breach of the deal.

France and Germany said on Wednesday they would crank up efforts to halt any spiral toward conflict with Iran, but time was running out and the risk of war could not be ruled out.

Iran’s signal of preparedness to stockpile enriched uranium beyond the deal’s limit, and refine uranium to a fissile purity higher than deemed necessary for civilian uses, prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to warn on Tuesday he was ready to take military action to stop Tehran developing a nuclear bomb.

Iran denies it has such intentions.

But Trump also left open whether he would support the use of force to protect Gulf oil supplies Washington fears might be put in jeopardy by Iran in the brewing confrontation.

“We want to unify our efforts so that there is a de-escalation process that starts,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters in Paris.

“There is still time and we hope all the actors show more calm. There is still time, but only a little time.”

Iran, where hardline foes of detente with the West have been strengthened by Trump’s pressure campaign, said on Wednesday it would give European powers no more time beyond July 8 to save the nuclear deal by shielding its economy from U.S. sanctions.

President Hassan Rouhani said Iran’s actions were the “minimum” Tehran could do one year after the United States withdrew from the deal, but said its steps were reversible “if they return to their commitments”.

In another incident likely to aggravate the stand-off, a rocket crashed onto a site in southern Iraq used by foreign oil companies on Wednesday, including U.S. energy giant ExxonMobil, wounding three people.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack near the southern Iraqi city of Basra, not far from the Iranian border – the fourth time in a week that rockets have struck near U.S. installations.

An Iraqi security source said it appeared that Iran-backed groups in southern Iraq were behind the Basra incident.

U.S. DISPLAYS MINE FRAGMENTS, MAGNET

In the United Arab Emirates port of Fujairah on Wednesday, the U.S. Navy displayed pieces of limpet mines and a magnet it said its personnel extracted from one of two oil tankers attacked in the Gulf of Oman last week.

The U.S. military earlier released images it said showed Iranian Revolutionary Guards removing an unexploded mine from Japanese-owned tanker Kokuka Courageous, which was hit by blasts along with Norwegian-owned Front Altair tanker on June 13.

“The limpet mine that was used in the attack is distinguishable and also strikingly bearing a resemblance to Iranian mines that have already been publicly displayed in Iranian military parades,” Sean Kido, commanding officer of an explosive ordnance dive and salvage task group in the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT), told reporters.

Small fragments said to have been removed from the Kokuka Courageous were on display alongside a magnet purportedly left by the Revolutionary Guard squad allegedly captured on video.

The Japanese company that owns the Kokuka Courageous had said its ship was damaged by two “flying objects”, but NAVCENT dismissed this.

“The damage at the blast hole is consistent with a limpet mine attack, it is not consistent with an external flying object striking the ship,” Kido said, adding that nail holes visible in the hull indicated how the mine was attached to the ship’s hull.

The location of the mine above the ship’s waterline indicated the intention was not to sink the vessel, he said.

Two Western security sources told Reuters this week the attacks seemed calibrated to inflict only limited damage and avoid injury to show Iran could sow chaos if it wanted to, possibly to persuade Washington and other foes to back off rather than trigger conflict.

Kido also said NAVCENT had collected biometric information including fingerprints from the ship’s hull that would help in crafting a criminal case against the assailants.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have pointed fingers at Iran for all the tanker attacks, but several European nations have said more evidence is needed.

“The dynamics of the two attacks are not clear, and the video that the U.S. said demonstrated Iran’s role was also not clear,” a Western diplomat in the Gulf told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Abdelhadi al-Ramahi, Sylvia Westall and Davide Barbuscia in Dubai, Aref Mohammed and Ahmed Rasheed in Iraq, Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London, John Irish and Michel Rose in Paris, Joseph Nasr in Berlin; Writing by Mark Heinrich; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

China upbeat on U.S. trade talks, but South China Sea tensions weigh

The head of the U.S. trade delegation Jeffrey Gerrish arrives at a hotel after talks with Chinese officials in Beijing, China, February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

BEIJING (Reuters) – China struck an upbeat note on Monday as trade talks resumed with the United States, but also expressed anger at a U.S. Navy mission through the disputed South China Sea, casting a shadow over the prospect for improved Beijing-Washington ties.

White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway on Monday also expressed confidence in a possible deal. Asked if the two countries were getting close to a trade agreement, she told Fox News in an interview, “It looks that way, absolutely.”

The United States is expected to keep pressing China on longstanding demands that it reform how it treats American companies’ intellectual property in order to seal a trade deal that could prevent tariffs from rising on Chinese imports.

The latest talks kick off with working level discussions on Monday before high-level discussions later in the week. Negotiations in Washington last month ended without a deal and with the top U.S. negotiator declaring work was needed.

“We, of course, hope, and the people of the world want to see, a good result,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a news briefing in Beijing.

The two sides are trying to hammer out a deal before the March 1 deadline when U.S. tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports are scheduled to increase to 25 percent from 10 percent.

Trump said last week he did not plan to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping before that deadline, dampening hopes that a trade pact could be reached quickly. But the White House’s Conway said a meeting was still possible soon.

Escalating tensions between the United States and China have cost both countries billions of dollars and disrupted global trade and business flows, roiling financial markets.

The same day the latest talks began, two U.S. warships sailed near islands claimed by China in the disputed South China Sea, a U.S. official told Reuters.

Asked if the ships’ passage would impact trade talks, Hua said that “a series of U.S. tricks” showed what Washington was thinking. But Hua added that China believed resolving trade frictions through dialogue was in the interests of both countries’ people, and of global economic growth.

China claims a large part of the South China Sea, and has built artificial islands and air bases there, prompting concern around the region and in Washington.

(Reporting by Michael Martina and Ben Blanchard in Beijing, and additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Kim Coghill and Nick Zieminski)

U.S. bolsters Asia ballistic missile defense as Trump-Kim summit nears

The U.S. guided-missile destroyer USS Milius (DDG69) arrives to join Forward Deployed Naval Forces at the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka, Japan May 22, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

By Tim Kelly

YOKOSUKA, Japan (Reuters) – The USS Milius, one of the U.S. Navy’s most advanced guided missile destroyers, arrived in Japan on Tuesday to reinforce defenses against any ballistic missile attacks by North Korea, or anyone else in East Asia.

The warship’s arrival at Yokosuka Naval Base comes three weeks before an unprecedented meeting is supposed to take place in Singapore between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The U.S. guided-missile destroyer USS Milius (DDG69) arrives to join Forward Deployed Naval Forces at the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka, Japan May 22, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

The U.S. guided-missile destroyer USS Milius (DDG69) arrives to join Forward Deployed Naval Forces at the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka, Japan May 22, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

The show of force is a reminder of the military pressure that can be brought to bear on North Korea as the United States seeks to press it to abandon its nuclear weapons and its ballistic missile program.

The deployment of the Milius to Japan was delayed by almost a year so it could undergo upgrades to its Aegis air defense system to enhance its ability to detect and target missiles.

Armed with missiles designed to shoot down warheads in space, the Milius will be part of a naval destroyer force that would be the first U.S. line of defense against any long-range ballistic missiles fired at it by North Korea.

The force, under a security treaty between Japan and the United States, would also defend Japan from attack.

“What the Milius has now is the latest and greatest upgrade for the combat system,” Commander Jennifer Pontius, the ship’s captain, said in Yokosuka after her ship docked.

“It creates increased capacity in various mission areas such as ballistic missile defense, electronic warfare, undersea warfare and air warfare.”

The Milius’s dockside welcome under a bright afternoon sky in Yokosuka, the headquarters of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, came amid uncertainty over whether the Trump-Kim meeting will go ahead.

North Korea said last week it was reconsidering the summit after calling off separate talks with South Korea in a protest over U.S.-South Korean air combat drills known as Max Thunder.

North Korea said it would walk away from dialogue if the United States insisted on it unilaterally abandoning its nuclear arsenal, which it says it needs to defend itself against U.S. aggression.

Family members of a crew hold signs, upon the arrival the U.S. guided-missile destroyer USS Milius (DDG69), that joins Forward Deployed Naval Forces at the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka, Japan May 22, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Family members of a crew hold signs, upon the arrival the U.S. guided-missile destroyer USS Milius (DDG69), that joins Forward Deployed Naval Forces at the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka, Japan May 22, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Trump has warned that failure to reach a denuclearisation agreement could lead to “decimation” of Kim’s rule.

The Milius joins two other ships in the Seventh Fleet with similar upgrades and reinforces the fleet after two other U.S. warships in the region were crippled in collisions with commercial ships last year.

With the Milius, the U.S. Navy has 13 ships based at Yokosuka, including the USS Ronald Reagan, Washington’s only forward deployed carrier.

(Reporting by Tim Kelly; Editing by Robert Birsel)

U.S. Navy jets begin sorties against IS in Syria from Mediterranean

F/A-18 fighter jets are seen on the flight deck of the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, May 5, 2018. Picture taken May 5, 2018. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

By Karolina Tagaris

ABOARD USS HARRY S. TRUMAN (Reuters) – A U.S. naval strike force led by aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman began sorties on May 3 against Islamic State in Syria, continuing missions by a U.S.-led coalition against the militants.

The force joined the U.S. Sixth Fleet on April 18, nearly a week after the United States, Britain and France launched air strikes targeting what Western powers said were Syrian chemical weapons installations.

The Navy said it was a scheduled deployment to support coalition partners, NATO allies and U.S. national security interests.

“We commenced combat operations in support of Operation Inherent Resolve,” Truman’s commanding officer Captain Nicholas Dienna said, referring to the coalition operation launched in 2014 against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

“That operation demonstrates … our resolve to our partners and allies in the region and our continuing fight to eliminate ISIS and their impact to the region,” he said.

Strike fighter squadrons commenced sorties over Syria from the eastern Mediterranean on May 3, the Navy said in a statement.

The most recent aircraft carrier strike group to operate in the sixth fleet was the USS George H.W. Bush which last conducted combat operations from the eastern Mediterranean Sea in July 2017.

The Truman is capable of carrying 90 aircraft, including F-18 Super Hornet fighter jets. It currently has “60 or so” aircraft on board, Truman’s air department officer Commander Steven Djunaedi said.

Several fighter jets were catapulted in sequence on Friday and Saturday from the Truman’s 4.5-acre flight deck and thundered into the sky, a Reuters witness said.

The strike group includes the cruiser USS Normandy and the destroyers Arleigh Burke, Farragut, Forrest Sherman and Bulkeley.

“Our fundamental job, by our presence even alone, is to increase the security and stability here in this part of the world,” Dienna said.

The Nimitz-class carrier was at the center of the U.S. Navy’s strikes against Islamic State in 2016. It returned to its homeport in Norfolk, Virginia, after an extended eight-month deployment.

Officials on board would not say how long its latest deployment was expected to last.

“We’ll be here as long as they need us and we’ll move on when they decide we need to go do something else,” the strike group’s commander Rear Admiral Gene Black said.

The United States, Britain and France have all participated in the Syrian conflict, arming rebels, bombing Islamic State fighters and deploying troops on the ground to fight the group.

April’s intervention was the biggest by Western countries against President Bashar Assad and his ally Russia. The countries said the strikes were limited to Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities and not aimed at toppling Assad or intervening in the civil war.

On Friday, the U.S. Navy said it was re-establishing its Second Fleet, responsible for the northern Atlantic Ocean, amid heightened tensions between Washington and Moscow.

Asked to comment on relations with the Russian navy in the Mediterranean, Dienna said: “We’ve had numerous interactions thus far with the Russians across the Mediterranean.

“I have been involved in virtually all of them and every single one of those has been professional, it’s been courteous and it’s been in accordance with international law.”

(Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

‘Angels’ and training help former fighter pilot save Southwest flight

Emergency personnel monitor the damaged engine of Southwest Airlines Flight 1380, which diverted to the Philadelphia International Airport this morning after the airline crew reported damage to one of the aircraft's engines, on a runway in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania U.S. April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Mark Makela

By Andrew Hay

(Reuters) – The pilot who safely landed a stricken Southwest Airlines flight on Tuesday got her first flying experience in the U.S. Navy, touching down F-18 fighter jets at 150 miles per hour on aircraft carriers.

Tammie Jo Shults, 56, may have drawn on her Navy skills when one of the two engines on her Boeing 737-700 blew and broke apart at 32,000 feet on Tuesday, forcing her to implement a rapid descent toward Philadelphia International Airport.

The explosion killed one passenger and nearly sucked another out of a shattered window.

One of the first female fighter pilots in the U.S. Navy, Shults calmly told air traffic control that part of her plane was missing, and she would need ambulances on the runway.

“So we have a part of the aircraft missing so we’re going to need to slow down a bit,” Shults told a controller.

Many of the 144 passengers sang her praise on social media after Shults thanked them for their bravery as they left the plane.

“The pilot Tammy Jo was so amazing! She landed us safely in Philly,” said Amanda Bourman on Instagram.

Passengers identified Shults as the pilot. Southwest Airlines declined to name the crew of flight 1380 and Shults was not immediately available for comment.

Authorities said the crew did what they were trained to do.

“They’re in the simulator and practice emergency descents..and losing an engine… They did the job that professional airline pilots are trained to do,” National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt told reporters.

“GOD SENT HIS ANGELS”

Shults might never have become a pilot if she had not been so determined to fly from a young age.

She is quoted on fighter plane blog F-16.net saying she tried to attend an aviation career day at high school but was told they did not accept girls.

A native of New Mexico, she never lost the urge to fly and, after studying medicine in Kansas, applied to the Air Force. It would not let her take the test to become a pilot, but the U.S. Navy did.

She was one of the first female F-18 pilots and became an instructor before she left the Navy in 1993 and joined Southwest, according to the blog.

A Christian, who is married to a fellow pilot and has two children, Shults said that sitting in the captain’s chair gave her “the opportunity to witness for Christ on almost every flight.”

Bourman was among passengers who said they had been saved by divine intervention.

“God sent his angels to watch over us,” she said.

(Reporting By Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; additional reporting by Bill Tarrant in Los Angeles; Editing by Neil Fullick)

After China’s massive drill, USS Theodore Roosevelt patrols disputed South China Sea

A busy day on the flight deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt while transiting the South China Sea April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Karen Lema

By Karen Lema

ABOARD THE USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT, South China Sea (Reuters) – In a span of 20 minutes, 20 F-18 fighter jets took off and landed on the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier, in a powerful display of military precision and efficiency.

The nuclear-powered warship, leading a carrier strike group, was conducting what the U.S. military called routine training in the disputed South China Sea on Tuesday, headed for a port call in the Philippines, a defence treaty ally.

The United States is not alone in carrying out naval patrols in the strategic waterway, where Chinese, Japanese and some Southeast Asian navies operate, possibly increasing tensions and risking accidents at sea.

“We have seen Chinese ships around us,” Rear Admiral Steve Koehler, the strike group commander, told a small group of reporters on board the three-decade-old carrier.

“They are one of the navies that operate in the South China Sea but I would tell you that we have seen nothing but professional work out of the ships we have encountered.”

Navies in the western Pacific, including China and nine Southeast Asian countries, have been working on a code of unexpected encounters (CUES) at sea to avoid conflict.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt’s presence in the South China Sea comes days after China’s massive air and naval drills in the area, in what some analysts described as an unusually large display of Beijing’s growing naval might.

China’s growing military presence in the waters has fueled concern in the West about Beijing’s end game.

The United States has criticized China’s apparent militarization of manmade islands and carried out regular air and naval patrols to assert its right to freedom of navigation in stretches of a sea China claims largely as its own.

“This transit in the South China Sea is nothing new in our planning cycle or in a reaction to that. It is probably by happenstance that all that is happening at the same time,” said Koehler, who gave a tour of the carrier to Philippine military officials and watched flight operations aboard the 100,000-tonne warship.

An F18 fighter takes off from the deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt while transiting the South China Sea April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Karen Lema

An F18 fighter takes off from the deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt while transiting the South China Sea April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Karen Lema

FUNCTION OF LAW

“All of the operations that we do in and around the South China Sea or any of the bodies of water we operate in, there is a function of international law and that is ultimately what we want to recognize,” Koehler said.

Tension between the United States and China over trade and territory under U.S. President Donald Trump has been stepped up of late, with fear in the region that the South China Sea, vital to global trade, could one day become a battleground between the two rival powers.

Philippine ties with China have meanwhile warmed under President Rodrigo Duterte, who has put aside disputes with Beijing and wants it to play a key role in building and funding urgently needed infrastructure, from highways and ports to railways and power plants.

China has long objected to U.S. military operations off its coasts, even in areas Washington insists are free to international passage.

“They (China) certainly have the right to exercise off their coast like we do, nor are they necessarily in charge of our transit cycle, but our deployment’s been planned,” Koehler said.

As the crew in color-coded uniforms raced to service dozens of aircraft taking off and landing, “handlers” in the flight deck control made sure the deck had enough room for jets to maneuver and refuel with the help of a “Ouija board”.

The board has all the models of each aircraft, which are marked with squadron name, model, make, and number of personnel. At any given moment, the flight deck is home to dozens of aircraft and helicopters.

“It is a showcase of the capability of the U.S. armed forces,” Philippine army chief Rolando Bautista said of the demonstration.

“Since Americans are our friends in one way or another, they can help us deter any threat.”

(Editing by Martin Petty and Nick Macfie)

Russia says it will respond in kind to West’s expulsions

A general view shows the U.S. embassy in Moscow, Russia March 27, 2018. REUTERS/Tatyana M

By Christian Lowe and Katya Golubkova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia said on Wednesday it would respond in kind to the mass expulsion of Russian diplomats by the West over the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in the English city of Salisbury.

What began as a row between London and Moscow after Britain accused Russia of using a nerve agent to poison Skripal and his daughter has now snowballed into an international chorus of rebuke for the Kremlin, with even some friendly governments ejecting Russian diplomats.

Adding to the list on Wednesday, Slovakia, Malta and Luxembourg each recalled their ambassador in Moscow for consultations, while Montenegro said it would expel a Russian diplomat. Slovakia and Montenegro, while both members of the U.S.-led NATO alliance, are traditionally close to Russia.

The biggest demarche came from the United States, which on Monday said it was expelling 60 Russian diplomats. That dented Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hopes of forging a friendly relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump.

Valentina Matviyenko, a Kremlin loyalist and speaker of the upper house of parliament, said Russia would retaliate.

“Without a doubt, Russia, as is diplomatic practice, will respond symmetrically and observe parity when it comes to the number of diplomats,” RIA news agency quoted her as saying.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said a Russian military aircraft had, for the first time since the Cold War, conducted a training flight via the North Pole to North America, RIA news agency reported.

There was no immediate indication that the flight was linked to Russia’s standoff with the West. The U.S. navy is holding a five-week training exercise in the Arctic Circle.

COLD WAR ECHOES

In total, more than 100 Russian diplomats are to be sent home from states ranging from Denmark to Australia, the biggest Western expulsion of Russian diplomats since the height of the Cold War.

Moscow has denied being behind the attack on the Skripals and says its adversaries are using it to whip up a campaign of “Russophobia.”

Skripal, 66, a double agent who was swapped in a spy exchange deal in 2010 and went to live in England, and Yulia Skripal, 33, were found unconscious on a public bench in a shopping center in Salisbury on March 4. They remain critically ill in hospital from the attack in which, British authorities say, a Soviet-era nerve toxin called Novichok was used.

Russia has already expelled 23 British diplomats, a tit-for-tat response to Britain’s expulsion of the same number of staff at the Russian embassy in London.

Adding to a drum beat of tough rhetoric coming from Moscow and London, the Russian foreign ministry raised the prospect British intelligence services had poisoned Skripal and his daughter.

“If convincing evidence to the contrary is not presented to the Russian side we will consider that we are dealing with an attempt on the lives of our citizens,” the ministry said in a statement.

In Australia, whose government said on Tuesday it would expel two diplomats, the Russian ambassador, Grigory Loginov, told reporters the world will enter into a “Cold War situation” if the West persists with its bias against Russia.

Two days after the United States announced the expulsion of Russian diplomats, there was still no sign of how exactly Russian planned to respond – an indication, perhaps, that the scale of the Western action caught Moscow off guard.

Interfax news agency quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying Moscow would assess the level of hostility in Washington and London before deciding how to retaliate.

(Additional reporting by Reuters bureaux; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

U.S. Navy plane crashes in Philippine Sea; three missing

U.S. Navy plane crashes in Philippine Sea; three missing

TOKYO (Reuters) – A U.S. Navy transport plane carrying 11 people crashed in the Philippine Sea south of Japan on Wednesday as it flew to the aircraft carrier the Ronald Reagan, the U.S. Seventh Fleet said.

Eight people had been rescued, with the remaining three unaccounted for, it said, adding that all of the rescued personnel were transferred to the Ronald Reagan for medical evaluation and were in good condition.

“Search and rescue efforts for three personnel continue with U.S. Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) ships and aircraft on scene,” the U.S. Seventh Fleet said in a news release.

“The incident will be investigated.”

The aircraft was conducting a routine transport flight carrying passengers and cargo from Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni to the carrier, which was operating in the Philippine Sea as part of an exercise with Japanese forces, it said.

Japanese Minister of Defence Itsunori Onodera told reporters the U.S. Navy had informed him that the crash in the Philippine Sea may have been a result of engine trouble.

The propeller powered transport plane, a C-2 Greyhound, carries personnel, mail and other cargo from mainland bases to carriers operating at sea.

C-2 aircraft have been in operation for more than five decades and are due to be replaced by the long-range tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft.

(Reporting by Tim Kelly; Additional reporting by Tetsushi Kajimoto; Editing by Robert Birsel)

U.S. Navy recovers second body in search for sailors missing after collision

The U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain is seen after a collision. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – U.S Navy and Marine Corps divers have recovered and identified a second body in the search for ten sailors missing after a collision between a guided-missile destroyer and merchant vessel near Singapore earlier this week, the U.S. Navy said on Friday.

The USS John S. McCain collided with the merchant tanker in waters near Singapore and Malaysia on Monday, which led to an international search-and-rescue operation for the missing sailors. The navy recovered the first body from inside the hull of the warship earlier this week.

“More divers and equipment arrived overnight to continue search and recovery operations for eight missing sailors inside flooded compartments of the ship,” the U.S. Seventh Fleet said in statement on its website.

On Thursday, the U.S. Navy suspended the wider search and rescue operation to focus recovery efforts on the damaged hull of the ship, which is moored at Singapore’s Changi Naval Base.

The Navy has already released the names of all the sailors who were missing.

(Reporting by Sam Holmes; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

U.S. Navy relieves Seventh Fleet commander in wake of collisions in Asia

FILE PHOTO: Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, U.S. 7th Fleet Commander, speaks to media on the status of the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Fitzgerald, damaged by colliding with a Philippine-flagged merchant vessel, and the seven missing Fitzgerald crew members, at the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, Japan June 18, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Hanai/File photo

By Phil Stewart and Tim Kelly

WASHINGTON/TOKYO (Reuters) – The U.S. Navy on Wednesday said it had removed Seventh Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin after a series of collisions involving its warships in Asia as the search goes on for 10 sailors missing since the latest mishap.

Aucoin’s removal comes after a pre-dawn collision between a guided-missile destroyer and a merchant vessel east of Singapore and Malaysia on Monday, the fourth major incident in the U.S. Pacific Fleet this year.

“Admiral Scott Swift, commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, today relieved the commander of Seventh Fleet, Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command,” the U.S. Navy said in a press release.

Swift, who traveled to Japan to relieve Aucoin, ordered his deputy Pacific Fleet commander, Rear Admiral Phil Sawyer, to immediately take command of the powerful U.S. force.

Aucoin was due to step down next month, with Sawyer, a submariner by trade, already slated to succeed him. Aucoin came up through the Navy’s air wing as an F-14 navigator.

“I support Admiral Swift’s decision to bring in new leadership. The new Seventh Fleet Commander must help move his team forward, focusing efforts on safe and effective operations,” U.S. Navy Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson said in a statement.

The Seventh Fleet, headquartered in Japan, operates as many as 70 ships, including the U.S. Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, and has around 140 aircraft and 20,000 sailors.

It operates over an area of 124 million square km (48 million square miles) from bases in Japan, South Korea and Singapore.

TENSE TIMES

The accident involving the USS John S. McCain and the tanker Alnic MC in the Singapore Strait came at a tense time for the U.S. Navy in Asia.

This month, the John S. McCain sailed within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China in the disputed South China Sea, the latest “freedom of navigation” operation to counter what the United States sees as China’s efforts to control the contested waters.

An official Chinese newspaper said on Tuesday the U.S. navy’s latest collision shows it is becoming an increasing risk to shipping in Asia despite its claims of helping to protect freedom of navigation.

Also this month, North Korea threatened to fire ballistic missiles towards the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam in a standoff over its nuclear and missile programs.

“Losing another ship now is bad timing. It may raise concern over America’s defensive capabilities and it could send the wrong signal to North Korea and China,” a senior Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force officer said, asking not to be identified because he is not authorized to talk to the media.

An international search-and-rescue operation involving aircraft, divers and vessels from the United States, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Australia is looking for the 10 U.S. sailors missing since Monday’s collision.

On Tuesday, U.S. Navy and Marine Divers found human remains inside sealed sections of the damaged hull of the USS John S McCain, which is moored at Singapore’s Changi Naval Base. The Navy has not yet announced the identities of the bodies discovered.

The U.S. Navy is also working to identify a body found by the Malaysian navy about eight nautical miles northwest of the collision site. Photos posted on the Twitter account of a Malaysian navy frigate on Wednesday showed crew carrying what appeared to be a body to a U.S. Navy helicopter.

The latest collision has already prompted a fleet-wide investigation and plans for temporary halts in U.S. Navy operations.

The John S. McCain’s sister ship, the USS Fitzgerald, almost sank off the coast of Japan after colliding with a Philippine container ship on June 17. The bodies of seven U.S. sailors were found in a flooded berthing area after that collision.

(Additional reporting by Nobuhiro Kubo in TOKYO, writing by Sam Holmes and Lincoln Feast; Editing by Paul Tait and Himani Sarkar)