DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AFP) – The explosion of an Israeli-owned cargo ship sailing from the Middle East on Friday, in an unexplained explosion, renewed concerns about ship security in the region amid escalating tensions between the United States and Iran.
The crew and the ship were safe, according to UK maritime trade operations, which are managed by the British Navy. The explosion in the Gulf of Oman prompted the ship to head to the nearest port.
The incident summoned the summer of 2019, when the site itself witnessed a series of suspicious attacks that the US Navy blamed on Iran, which Tehran denied. Meanwhile, as US President Joe Biden tries to revive the nuclear negotiations with Iran, he ordered airstrikes overnight. Attacks on facilities in Syria belonging to a powerful Iraqi armed group backed by Iran.
Dryad Global, a naval intelligence company, identified the ill-fated vessel as the MV Helios Ray, a cargo ship flying the Bahamas flag. Another private security official, who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, likewise identified the ship as the Helios Ray.
Satellite tracking data from MarineTraffic.com showed that the Helios beam was about to enter the Arabian Sea at around 0600 GMT on Friday before suddenly turning around and starting back toward the Strait of Hormuz. It was coming from Dammam, Saudi Arabia and is still listed in Singapore as a destination on its tracker.
The Israeli Channel 13 said, in a report whose source did not return, that the assessment in Israel is that Iran was behind the explosion. Israeli officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The blast comes as Tehran increasingly breaches its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers to create influence over Washington. Iran is seeking to pressure Biden to grant the sanctions relief it obtained under the deal that former President Donald Trump abandoned nearly three years ago.
Iran also blamed Israel for the recent series of attacks, including a mysterious explosion Last summer, the advanced centrifuge assembly plant at the Natanz nuclear facility was destroyed and Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed.A prominent Iranian scientist founded the Islamic Republic’s military nuclear program two decades ago.
Capt. Ranjith Raja of data company Refinitiv told the AP that the Israeli-owned ship left the Persian Gulf on Thursday, bound for Singapore. He said the ship stopped on Friday at 0230 GMT for at least 9 hours east of a major Omani port, before turning 360 degrees and sailing toward Dubai, likely to assess the damage and repairs.
The ship came with a cargo from Europe. He added that the company offloaded vehicles at several ports in the region, including in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and its last port was in Dammam.
While details of the explosion remain unclear, two U.S. defense officials told the AP that the ship had suffered two holes in the port side and two holes on its right side above the waterline in the explosion. Officials said it was not clear what caused the holes. They spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity to discuss the unreleased 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 were not answered on Friday.
Abraham Ungar, 74, nicknamed “Ramy”, is the founder of Ray Shipping Ltd. He is known as one of the richest men in Israel. He made his fortune in shipping and construction.
According to the Nikola Y. Vaptsarov Naval Academy, where Ungar provides naval support and training, he owns dozens of vehicle-carrying ships and employs thousands of engineers.
The US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, said it was “informed and watched” of the situation.
While the circumstances of the explosion remain unclear, Dryad Global said it was very likely that the explosion was caused by “disproportionate activity of the Iranian military.”
At a time when Iran seeks to pressure the United States to lift sanctions, the country may seek “strong diplomacy through military means,” according to Dryad. Iran did not immediately acknowledge the incident.
In the tense summer of 2019, the US military blamed Iran for bombings targeting two oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s most strategic shipping lanes. The United States has also attributed a series of other suspected attacks to Iran, including the use of shiny mines – designed to be attached magnetically to the hull of the ship – to disable four oil tankers off the nearby UAE port of Fujairah.
Since the killing of Fakhri Zadeh, the Iranian nuclear scientist, last November, Israeli officials have raised concerns about possible Iranian retaliation, including through regional proxies such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Over the years, Iran has been associated with attacks on Israeli and Jewish civilian targets in Latin America, Europe, and Asia. Israel has not commented on its alleged role in killing the scientist.
Friday’s incident comes on the heels of normalization agreements between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain. The agreements, which were met with harsh criticism from Iran, cemented an emerging regional alliance against the Islamic Republic.
Associated Press writers Laurie Kelman in Tel Aviv, Israel, Joseph Federman in Jerusalem, and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.