Explosion strikes Israeli-owned ship in Mideast amid tension

·3 min read

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — An explosion struck an Israeli-owned cargo ship sailing out of the Middle East on Friday, an unexplained blast renewing concerns about ship security amid escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

The crew and vessel were safe, according to the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which is run by the British navy. The explosion forced the vessel to head to the nearest port.

The site of the blast, the Gulf of Oman, saw a series of explosions in 2019 that the U.S. Navy blamed on Iran against the backdrop of steeply rising threats between former President Donald Trump and Iranian leaders. Tehran denied the accusations, which came amid heightened tensions over Tehran’s tattered 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Dryad Global, a maritime intelligence firm, identified the vessel as the MV Helios Ray, a Bahaman-flagged roll-on, roll-off vehicle cargo ship. Another private security official, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, similarly identified the ship as the Helios Ray.

Satellite-tracking data from website MarineTraffic.com showed the Helios Ray had been nearly entering the Arabian Sea around 0600 GMT Friday before it suddenly turned around and began heading back toward the Strait of Hormuz. It still listed Singapore as its destination on its tracker.

A United Nations ship database identified the vessel’s owners as a Tel Aviv-based firm called Ray Shipping Ltd. Calls to Ray Shipping rang unanswered Friday.

The U.S. Navy's Bahrain-based 5th Fleet was “aware and monitoring” the situation, Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich told The Associated Press. She declined to immediately comment further.

While the circumstances of the explosion remain unclear, Dryad Global, said it was very possible the blast stemmed from “asymmetric activity by Iranian military."

As Iran seeks to pressure the United States to lift sanctions and return to the 2015 atomic accord, the country may seek “to exercise forceful diplomacy through military means,” the Dryad report said.

Iran did not immediately acknowledge the incident.

In the summer of 2019, the U.S. military blamed Iran for suspected attacks on two oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world's most strategic shipping lanes.

The explosions came after the U.S. attributed a series of confrontations in the region to Iran, including the use of limpet mines — designed to be attached magnetically to a ship’s hull — to attack four oil tankers off the nearby Emirati port of Fujairah, and the bombing of an oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia by Iranian-backed fighters.

Hostilities between the nations escalated after Trump's unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear accord and reimposition of harsh sanctions on Iran.

In response, Iran has gradually and publicly breached the nuclear deal with world powers to create leverage over Washington to return to the deal, which saw Tehran agree to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of crippling sanctions.

Jon Gambrell And Isabel Debre, The Associated Press