DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — An explosion-hit, Israeli-owned cargo ship in the Gulf of Oman anchored in Dubai on Saturday morning, after a blast on Friday forced the vessel to head to the nearest port.
Satellite-tracking data from website MarineTraffic.com showed the stricken ship, the MV Helios Ray, arriving at the Dubai port at around 11:00 a.m. Saturday.
The ship had nearly entered the Arabian Sea Friday morning before it suddenly turned around and began heading back toward the Strait of Hormuz, according to MarineTraffic.com. The vessel, a Bahaman-flagged cargo ship carrying vehicles, was in transit from Saudi Arabia to Singapore.
Hebrew media quoted unnamed Israeli officials as saying they believe Iran was responsible for the Friday explosion, which did not disable the ship or injure its crew of 28 members, but forced it ashore for repairs.
A maritime risk intelligence company with a UK address and number, Ambrey Intelligence, tweeted a compilation of pictures said to be of the damage to the vessel. The veracity of the photos could not be confirmed.
Various photos circulating of the damage to the HELIOS RAY corroborate reports from two U.S. defence officials cited by AP of two holes in the port and starboard sides of the vessel (four total), just above the waterline. Signage shows damage at deck 3 level. pic.twitter.com/5PweU95UxT
— Ambrey Intelligence (@Ambrey_Intel) February 26, 2021
Aurora Intel, a network that says it provides news and updates based on open-source intelligence on Twitter, also posted photos it says were from the damaged ship.
— Aurora Intel (@AuroraIntel) February 26, 2021
The area of the blast, off Iran’s coast at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, saw a series of explosions in 2019 that the US Navy blamed on Iran, against the backdrop of steeply rising threats between former US president Donald Trump and Iranian leaders. Tehran had denied the accusations, which came after Trump abandoned Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and reimposed harsh sanctions on the country.
The Friday explosion came amid high tensions between Iran and the Biden administration, which took its first military action Thursday night against Iranian-backed militia in Syria in response to attacks on US forces in the Middle East.
There were conflicting reports on whether Iran would have known the ship was Israeli-owned.
Haaretz and Channel 13 said in unsourced reports that Iran knew the ship was Israeli, but the ship’s owner and other reports said it was unlikely.
Channel 12, in an unsourced report, said the blast was caused by a missile fired from an Iranian vessel.
Dryad Global, a maritime intelligence firm, 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, the country may seek “to exercise forceful diplomacy through military means,” Dryad reported.
In recent weeks, as the administration of Joe Biden looked to re-engage with Iran, Tehran has escalated its breaches of the nuclear accord to create leverage over Washington. The deal saw Tehran agree to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of crippling sanctions.
Iran also has blamed Israel for a recent series of attacks, including a mysterious explosion last summer that destroyed an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at its Natanz nuclear facility and the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a top Iranian scientist who founded the Islamic Republic’s military nuclear program two decades ago.
A United Nations ship database identified the vessel’s owners as a Tel Aviv-based firm called Ray Shipping Ltd.
Abraham Ungar, 74, who goes by “Rami,” is the founder of Ray Shipping Ltd., and is known as one of the richest men in Israel. He made his fortune in shipping and construction. Hebrew media reported that Ungar is close to Yossi Cohen, head of the Mossad spy agency.
Ray Shipping confirmed that one of its vessels carrying a “Bahamas flag” was damaged “when an explosion was heard in the Persian Gulf near the Straits of Hormuz.”
“The ship has 28 crew members. No one was hurt. The engine room was not damaged. It is on its way to the port of Dubai to fix everything necessary,” the company told The Times of Israel.
Ungar said he did not know exactly what had hit the vessel, but said it was most likely “missiles or a mine placed on the bow.”
“Israeli authorities will investigate this together with me,” he told the Ynet news site. “I don’t think this deliberately targeted an Israeli-owned ship. That has not happened to me before.”
Ungar said it was most likely linked to previous attacks on shipping in the area.
“I think it is part of the game between Iran and the US, that’s why they are hitting Western ships,” he said.
Ungar told Channel 13, “The crew heard an explosion. There was a blast, there’s a hole, there’s damage. There will be a check when the ship reaches port.”
He said the holes in the side of the ship were around 1.5 meters (yards) in diameter.
The network said US officials will inspect the ship once it reaches Dubai for repairs.
Capt. Ranjith Raja of the data firm Refinitiv told the AP that the Israeli-owned vessel had left the Persian Gulf Thursday bound for Singapore. Early Friday morning, the vessel stopped for at least nine hours east of a main Omani port before making a 360-degree turn and sailing toward Dubai, likely for damage assessment and repairs, he said.
The vessel came loaded with cargo from Europe. It discharged vehicles at several ports in the region, Raja added, including in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, with its last port of call at Dammam.
An explosion struck an Israeli-owned cargo ship sailing in the Gulf of Oman Friday. The crew and vessel were safe. The explosion forced the vessel, reported to be the Helios Ray, to head to the nearest port. pic.twitter.com/vT7IZkKegq
— Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian (@manniefabian) February 26, 2021
The US Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet was “aware and monitoring” the situation, Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich told the AP. She declined to immediately comment further.
While details of the explosion remained unclear, two American defense officials told the AP that the ship had sustained two holes on its port side and two holes on its starboard side just above the waterline in the blast. The officials said it remained unclear what caused the holes. They spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity to discuss unreleased information on the incidents.
The explosion on Friday recalled the summer of 2019, when the US military blamed Iran for suspected attacks on two oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s most strategic shipping lanes. In the preceding months, the US had attributed a series of suspected attacks to Iran, including the use of limpet mines — designed to be attached magnetically to a ship’s hull — to cripple four oil tankers off the nearby Emirati port of Fujairah.
Israel did not immediately comment on the blast. Since the killing of Fakhrizadeh, the Iranian nuclear scientist, last November, Israeli officials have raised alarms about potential Iranian retaliation, including through its regional proxies like Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
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 scientist’s killing.