US plans Gulf naval exercise in May

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(Picture for illustrative purposes only)

(Picture for illustrative purposes only)

The United States and its allies will stage a naval exercise in the Gulf in May to practise minesweeping and escorting ships, the US Navy said on Monday, a manoeuvre likely to be seen in the region as guarding against a potential threat from Iran.

Representatives from more than 30 nations will gather in Bahrain for the International Mine Countermeasures Exercise (IMCMEX) 13 from May 6-30, eight months after they staged a previous edition of the exercises at a time when Israel and Iran were trading threats of war.

In early 2012 Iran repeatedly threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow exit route through which most of the Gulf's oil and gas is exported, amid heightened tension with the West over Tehran's disputed nuclear development programme.

But such threats have faded over the last few months, as world powers have tried to resolve their differences with Tehran through negotiations.

Piracy remains a threat to shipping in the Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea, but successful attacks also have fallen thanks to an international naval protection force and armed security guards now commonly employed on at-risk voyages.

"This multidisciplinary defense exercise is focused on maritime security for commerce and trade from the port of origin to the port of arrival," Commodore Simon Ancona, deputy commander of the Combined Maritime Forces, said in a statement.

In addition to minesweeping and flying drones, this year's event will include escorting ships and protecting offshore terminals that oil and gas exporters in the Gulf rely on.

US Commander Jason Salata told Reuters the exercises in May would be limited to the Gulf and Gulf of Oman and focus on protecting critical infrastructure such as offshore oil assets.

There were no exercises planned in the Strait of Hormuz itself because it could be disruptive to normal shipping through the narrow shipping lanes. "It will be simulating convoy type situations but not in the Strait itself," Salata said.

Last September's exercises included Britain and France, some unnamed Middle Eastern states, and countries from as far apart as Estonia and New Zealand. The names of the countries taking part in the exercises this May have not been announced.

In a separate development, a U.S. fighter jet crashed into the North Arabian Sea after an engine failure on Monday but both crew were recovered unharmed, the US Navy said.

The F/A-18F Super Hornet was flying near the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier when a mechanical failure forced the crew to eject. The exact location of the crash was not given but the Northern Arabian Sea bordered by Pakistan to the north and Oman to the west.

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