DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran captured a U.S. intelligence-gathering drone that entered its airspace over the Gulf, its armed forces said on Tuesday, the latest in a recent succession of alleged U.S. violations of Iranian territory.
The incident highlighted tensions in the Gulf as both the Islamic Republic and the United States seek to demonstrate their military capability over the waterway amid a standoff over Iran's nuclear programme.
Iran has repeatedly threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz - the artery for 40 percent of the world's seaborne crude oil shipments - if it comes under military attack. U.S. commanders have said they will not let that happen.
The compact ScanEagle drone was gathering information over the Gulf and had entered Iranian airspace when it was captured by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) naval unit, a statement on the Guards' website said.
The drone was "captured" in the last few days, it said, without specifying where the incident occurred and whether the unmanned spy plane was shot down or crashed.
The IRGC released what it said was video of the ScanEagle being displayed and examined by military officials beneath a sign reading "We will trample the United States."
A U.S. Navy spokesman said military authorities were aware of the reports and were looking into them.
If confirmed, the latest incident seems to be part of an undeclared clandestine war over Tehran's nuclear programme that has featured assassinations, espionage and sabotage.
The ScanEagle is manufactured by Boeing Co. According to the firm's website, the drone is four feet long and has a 10-foot (three-metre) wingspan.
In November, the United States said Iranian warplanes shot at a U.S. surveillance drone flying in international airspace. Iran said the aircraft had entered its airspace, and said it would respond "decisively" to any foreign encroachments into its airspace.
Just days later Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee, wrote to Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to complain about alleged repeated U.S. violations of Iranian airspace, describing them as "illegal and provocative acts".
Khazaee claimed that U.S. craft had entered southern Iran seven times in October around Bushehr where Iran's only nuclear power station is situated.
A year ago to the day, Iranian forces announced they had captured a U.S. RQ-170 reconnaissance drone in eastern Iran which was reported lost by U.S. forces in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Iranian commanders have since announced they have extracted valuable technology from the aircraft and were in the process of reverse-engineering it for their own defence industry.
The United States and its allies believe Tehran is trying to develop nuclear weapons and have imposed tough economic and financial sanctions. Iran says its programme is purely peaceful.
Israel has threatened to bomb Iranian nuclear sites if diplomacy and sanctions fail to stop its nuclear activities. In October, Israel shot down an Iranian-made drone launched into the Jewish state by Lebanese Islamist group Hezbollah.
According to Boeing's publicity material, the ScanEagle drone can be launched by a catapult from mobile vehicles or small ships, making it independent of runways.
It can fly pre-programmed or operator-run missions guided by the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) and its onboard flight control system.
It is retrieved using a "Skyhook" system in which the drone catches a rope hanging from a 50-ft (16-metre) high pole.
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