WASHINGTON (Reuters) - 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 freed 13 Iranian fishermen kidnapped by pirates.
The successive 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.
The Pentagon 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 Navy issued a statement quoting the owner of the Iranian ship saying: "Without your help, we were dead. Thank you for all you did for us."
The six Iranians were given water, food and blankets and one was treated for minor injuries. They were then transferred on inflatable boats from the Coast Guard vessel to an Iranian coast guard ship.
The captain of the Iranian vessel was quoted by the Navy thanking the Americans for aiding the Iranian sailors.
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.
(Reporting By Phil Stewart; Editing by Eric Beech and Paul Simao)