The U.S. Navy took control of a Russian oil tanker just outside the Persian Gulf on Thursday on suspicion that the ship was smuggling Iraqi petroleum products in violation of U.N. sanctions, Pentagon officials said.
Russian authorities protested the action and insisted the tanker had loaded its cargo legally in Iran.
Acting as part of an international squadron that enforces the sanctions, a U.S. cruiser and frigate diverted the Russian ship to an anchorage in international waters while awaiting chemical tests to determine the origin of the cargo, said Rear Adm. Craiq Quigley, a Defense Department spokesman.
If there is conclusive evidence of smuggling, he added, the tanker will be taken to a port in the gulf where both the ship and its load of gas oil _ a petroleum distillate often used as diesel fuel or heating oil _ are likely to be sold as contraband.
The incident comes at a time of steady tension between Moscow and Washington on subjects ranging from Russia's military action in Chechnya to America's plans for a national missile defense system.
The U.N. sanctions on Iraq, imposed after 1991 Gulf War, prohibit petroleum exports except under a U.N.-supervised program that allows limited sales of oil to pay for food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies.
State Department spokesman James Foley said the amount of oil smuggled out of Iraq by sea has doubled since late summer, to about 100,000 barrels a day.
In Moscow, Russian officials said they were mystified and disturbed by the U.S. Navy's actions, and they demanded the ship be released.