The UK Defence Ministry is confirming an overnight attack on an Israeli-managed tanker in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Oman. Though few details have been given, or whether the incident could have been related to piracy - which is not uncommon in those waters - suspicions are on Iran given the recent history of tit-for-tat vessel attacks in Mideast waters.
London-based Zodiac Maritime, owned by Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer, has issued a statement saying two crew members died as a result of the attack, including one Romanian and one British crew member, aboard what's been identified as the "Mercer Street" petroleum products tanker.
Zodiac Maritime initially described the late Thursday incident as a "suspected piracy incident". The statement indicated "At the time of the incident the vessel was in the northern Indian Ocean, traveling from Dar es Salaam to Fujairah with no cargo onboard." Zodiac manages the operations of the Japanese-owned vessel.
However in announcing an investigation underway, the British military’s Maritime Trade Operations contradicted this early piracy assessment, pointing to a sabotage attack likely by foreign state-backed operatives:
Britain's maritime authorities said earlier in the day that the attack occurred 175 miles off the Port of Duqm on Thursday, adding that the incident was not related to piracy.
According to tracking details in The Associated Press based on UK military statements, "The attack Thursday night targeted Liberian-flagged oil tanker Mercer Street just northeast of the Omani island of Masirah. The location is over 300 kilometers (185 miles) southeast of Oman’s capital, Muscat." One unconfirmed report from a maritime security risk management firm is pointing to a possible drone attack.
This would be a significant escalation here, if true--@GlobalDryad reports the attack on the Israeli-operated Mercer Street resulted in two casualties & says the method of attack was "possibly UAV." https://t.co/cfwjRChbdw— Jason Brodsky (@JasonMBrodsky) July 30, 2021
The AP was also quick to acknowledge suspicions of Iranian covert action, despite the initial suggestion of a piracy incident: "Other Israel-linked ships have been targeted in recent months as well amid a shadow war between the two nations, with Israeli officials blaming the Islamic Republic for the assaults. Israel meanwhile has been suspected in a series of major attacks targeting Iran’s nuclear program," the report said.
"This is the second time this month a ship tied to Ofer apparently has been targeted. In early July, the Liberian-flagged container ship CSAV Tyndall, once tied to Zodiac Maritime, suffered an unexplained explosion on board while in the northern India Sea, according to the U.S. Maritime Administration," the report underscores. It will be interesting to see if the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, which patrols the region, will respond to the area of the incident.
Past incidents have tended to not result in casualties, thus this latest serious incident if confirmed to have had Iranian involvement would mark a huge escalation, possibly even derailing the stalled Vienna nuclear talks, also at a sensitive moment for domestic politics in the Islamic Republic, given hardline president-elect Ibrahim Raisi is due to enter office August 3rd.
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