Israeli, U.S. Sources Blame Iran for Deadly Ship Attack

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M/T Mercer Street ship near Cape Town, South Africa in 2016.
M/T Mercer Street ship near Cape Town, South Africa in 2016.Credit: Johan Victor

Israeli, U.S. and European sources are pointing the finger at Iran over an attack on Friday off the coast of Oman on a Japanese-owned vessel, managed by a company run by an Israeli businessman, resulting in the death of two crew members.

The Zodiac Maritime, the U.K.-based company operating the ship, first broke the news, and said that the victims were from Romania and the U.K., adding that it wasn't aware of harm to any other personnel. 

Israeli sources believe an unmanned drone was used in the attack, with the New York Times reporting that multiple drones crashed into the living quarters of the vessels. 

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said that he is in contact with his British counterpart, Dominic Raab, over the incident, and stressed the need to respond harshly to the attack. 

"Iran is not just an Israeli problem, but an exporter of terrorism, destruction and instability that affects the whole world. We can never remain silent in the face of Iranian terrorism, which also harms freedom of navigation," Lapid said.

An Israeli diplomat blamed Iran for the attack, saying it is "sowing violence and destruction in every corner of the region. Out of their appetite to attack an Israeli target, they got tangled up, and incriminated themselves by killing foreign civilians." Israeli security officials are currently meeting to assess the situation.  

Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department expressed concern on the reported attack, and said that it is monitoring the situation very closely.

An Iranian-made warship in the Gulf of Oman, in January.Credit: WANA NEWS AGENCY/Reuters

U.S. and European sources familiar with intelligence reporting also told Reuters they believe that Iran is the leading suspect in the attack, though U.S. and European governments are still seeking conclusive evidence.

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According to one source speaking to Al-Alam News Network, an Iranian Arabic-language news channel, the attack was indeed carried out by Iran, and was a response to Israel's strike on an airport in the Quseir region of Syria last week.  

In recent maritime confrontations between Iran and Israel, this marks the first time that an attack on a vessel linked to Israel has resulted in casualties. 

Zodiac Maritime, the company operating the ship, tweeted that the M/T Mercer Street was targeted in a "suspected piracy incident." Zodiac Maritime is chaired by Israeli businessman Eyal Ofer.

"The ship is a Japanese-owned vessel managed by our U.K.-based Zodiac Maritime Office. At the time of the incident, the vessel was in the northern Indian Ocean, travelling from Dar es Salaam to Fujairah with no cargo onboard," the Tweet said. 

However, the U.K. Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) later said that it did not believe the incident was an act of piracy.

Oman did not immediately acknowledge an attack. The U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, which patrols the Mideast, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Over the past six months, there have been increasing attacks on both Israeli- and Iranian-owned ships, which the countries attribute to each other. 

In early July, a commercial ship previously under Israeli ownership was attacked in the northern Indian Ocean. A month earlier, Iran's largest navy ship sunk after catching fire in the Gulf. 

In April, a cargo ship was struck off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, with Israel placing the blame on Iran.  Two days earlier, Iran had vowed revenge against Israel following an explosion in Iran's Natanz nuclear facility. An Iranian command ship was also hit the previous week in the Red Sea, an attack which was attributed to Israel by the New York Times.

In March, an Iranian missile also hit an Israeli-owned vessel making its way from Tanzania to India, with another ship hit in February in the Gulf of Oman. 

Reuters contributed to this report.

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