Explosion strikes Israeli-owned ship in Mideast amid tension
An explosion hit an Israeli-owned cargo ship sailing from the Middle East on Friday. An unexplained explosion renewed ship safety concerns in the region amid escalating tensions between the US and Iran.
The crew and the ship were safe, according to the British maritime trade operations operated by the British Navy. The explosion in the Gulf of Oman forced the ship to sail to the nearest port.
The incident commemorated the summer of 2019 when a series of alleged attacks took place at the same location, which the US Navy accused Iran of which Tehran denied. While US President Joe Biden tries to revive nuclear negotiations with Iran, he ordered overnight air strikes on facilities in Syria owned by a powerful Iranian-backed Iraqi armed group.
Dryad Global, a maritime intelligence company, identified the affected ship as the MV Helios Ray, a roll-on and roll-off cargo ship sailing under the Bahamian flag. Another private security officer, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence issues, also identified the ship as the Helios Ray.
Satellite tracking data from the MarineTraffic.com website showed the Helios Ray nearly entered the Arabian Sea at 6:00 a.m. GMT on Friday before suddenly turning and heading back towards the Strait of Hormuz. It came from Dammam, Saudi Arabia, and still listed Singapore as a destination on its tracker.
Israel’s Channel 13 said in an unstated report that the assessment in Israel was that Iran was behind the explosion. Israeli officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The explosion comes as Tehran increasingly violates its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers to leverage Washington. Iran is trying to pressure Biden to grant the sanction relief he received under the deal that former President Donald Trump abandoned nearly three years ago.
Iran has also blamed Israel for a number of attacks, including a mysterious explosion last summer that destroyed an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at its Natanz nuclear facility and the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a leading Iranian scientist who oversees the military nuclear program the Islamic Republic founded decades ago.
Captain Ranjith Raja of the data company Refinitiv told the AP that the Israeli-owned ship left the Persian Gulf for Singapore on Thursday. On Friday at 2:30 p.m. GMT, the ship stopped at least 9 hours east of a major port in Oman before making a 360-degree turn and sailing towards Dubai, likely for damage assessment and repair, he said.
The ship was loaded with cargo from Europe. Raja added that vehicles have been unloaded in several ports in the region, including Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, with the final port of call in Dammam.
While details of the explosion remained unclear, two American defense officials told the AP that the ship suffered two holes on its port side and two holes on its starboard side directly above the waterline in the explosion. Officials said it remained unclear what caused the holes. They spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity to discuss unpublished information about the incidents.
A United Nations ship database identified the ship’s owners as a Tel Aviv-based company called Ray Shipping Ltd. Calls to Ray Shipping rang unanswered on Friday.
Abraham Ungar, 74, who comes from “Rami”, is the founder of Ray Shipping Ltd. and is considered one of the richest men in Israel. He made his fortune in shipping and construction.
He owns dozens of car carriers and employs thousands of engineers, according to the Nikola Y. Vaptsarov Naval Academy, where Ungar provides assistance and maritime training.
The US Navy’s 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain, said it was “aware and monitored” of the situation.
While the circumstances of the explosion remain unclear, Dryad Global said it was very likely that the explosion was due to “asymmetrical activity by the Iranian military”.
As Iran seeks to pressure the United States to lift sanctions, it could seek “forceful diplomacy by military means,” said Dryad. Iran did not immediately acknowledge the incident.
In the tense summer of 2019, the US military blamed Iran for explosions on two oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, one of the most strategic shipping routes in the world. The US had also attributed a number of other alleged attacks to Iran, including the use of limpet mines, which were supposed to be magnetically attached to the ship’s hull, to paralyze four oil tankers off the nearby port of Fujairah in the Emirates.
Since the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Fakhrizadeh last November, Israeli officials have raised alarms about possible Iranian reprisals, including by regional officials such as the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Over the years Iran has been linked to attacks on Israeli and Jewish civilian targets in Latin America, Europe and Asia. Israel has not commented on its alleged role in the assassination of the scientist.
Friday’s incident also follows normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. The agreements, heavily criticized by Iran, cemented an emerging regional alliance against the Islamic Republic.
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