Another six Iranian mariners have been rescued by American forces, this time in waters off Iraq, the Pentagon said on Tuesday, just days after announcing that a U.S. warship had rescued 13 Iranian fishermen kidnapped by pirates.
The repeated rescue operations have taken place at a moment of heightened tension between the two countries over Iran's nuclear program, which the West suspects is aimed at building an atomic bomb. Iran threatened last month to shut off the Strait of Hormuz - the world's most important oil shipping lane - if new U.S. and EU sanctions halted its oil exports.
Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain John Kirby said a U.S. Coast Guard cutter led the latest rescue mission, responding to a distress call about 50 miles southeast of the Iraqi port city of Umm Qaser. The Iranians said their ship had been taking on water.
"The six are on board the cutter right now," Kirby said.
It was not immediately clear how the six Iranians would return to Iran, given questions about seaworthiness of their vessel. The United States does not have formal diplomatic relations with Tehran, which says its nuclear program is entirely peaceful.
Last Thursday, U.S. naval forces in the northern Arabian Sea rescued 13 Iranian fisherman who were held hostages by pirates for more than a month, sending them home with food and fuel and wearing baseball caps bearing the name of the U.S. warship that freed them.
Those naval forces belonged to the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier strike group, which had been the target of earlier threats from Iran's military not to return to the Gulf after departing in December.