ReutersLONDON (Reuters) — Britain has started sending a warship to accompany all British-flagged vessels through the Strait of Hormuz, a change in policy announced on Thursday after the government previously said it did not have resources to do so.
Tensions have spiked between Iran and Britain since last Friday when Iranian commandos seized a British-flagged tanker in the world’s most important waterway for oil shipments. That came two weeks after British forces captured an Iranian oil tanker near Gibraltar, accused of violating sanctions on Syria.
HMS Montrose, a British frigate now in the area, carried out the first mission under the new policy on Wednesday evening.
“The Royal Navy has been tasked to accompany British-flagged ships through the Strait of Hormuz, either individually or in groups, should sufficient notice be given of their passage,” a government spokesman said.
“Freedom of navigation is crucial for the global trading system and world economy, and we will do all we can to defend it,” he added in a statement.
The British government had previously advised British-flagged vessels to avoid the Strait of Hormuz where possible and to notify the navy if they must cross it, but had said it would not be able to escort every ship.
Britain has been seeking to put together a European-led maritime protection mission to ensure safe shipping through the Strait of Hormuz after Iran’s seizure of the tanker in what London said was an act of “state piracy.”
The change of policy was not the result of a change made by new Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as the government had been working on the plan for a few days, according to an official, who asked not to be named.
The U.K. Chamber of Shipping trade association, which previously called for more protection of merchant vessels in the area, welcomed the change.
“This move will provide some much needed safety and reassurance to our shipping community in this uncertain time,” said the chief executive, Bob Sanguinetti. “However, we will continue to push for a de-escalation of tensions in the region.”
On any given day, about 15 to 30 large British-flagged ships travel in the Gulf, with up to three passing through the Strait of Hormuz between Iran and Oman, where a pair of two-mile-wide shipping lanes provide the only routes in and out of the Gulf.