Iran says vessel being taken into its territorial waters

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard seizes Israeli-linked ship with 25 crew near Strait of Hormuz

Video shows commandos rappelling from helicopter onto Portugal-flagged MSC Aries in Gulf of Oman, off Emirati port Fujairah; vessel associated with Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group

This image made from a video provided to The Associated Press by a Mideast defense official shows a helicopter raid targeting a vessel near the Strait of Hormuz on April 13, 2024. (AP Photo)
This image made from a video provided to The Associated Press by a Mideast defense official shows a helicopter raid targeting a vessel near the Strait of Hormuz on April 13, 2024. (AP Photo)

Commandos from Iran’s paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps rappelled down from a helicopter onto an Israeli-affiliated container ship near the Strait of Hormuz and seized the vessel Saturday.

Iran’s state-run IRNA said a special forces unit of the Guard’s navy carried out the attack on the vessel, the Portuguese-flagged MSC Aries, a container ship associated with London-based Zodiac Maritime. Zodiac Maritime is part of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group.

A video first reported by The Associated Press showed commandos raiding the ship near the key waterway by helicopter.

Zodiac declined to comment and referred questions to MSC. Geneva-based MSC later acknowledged the seizure and said 25 crew had been aboard the vessel. IRNA said the Guard would take the vessel into Iranian territorial waters.

The MSC Aries had been last located off Dubai heading toward the Strait of Hormuz on Friday. The ship had turned off its tracking data, which has been common for Israeli-affiliated ships moving through the region.

The video showed the attack earlier reported by the British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations. It described the vessel as being “seized by regional authorities” in the Gulf of Oman off the Emirati port city of Fujairah.

In the video, the commandos rappelled down onto a stack of containers sitting on the deck of the vessel.

A crew member on the ship could be heard saying: “Don’t come out.” The crew mate then tells his colleagues to go to the ship’s bridge as more commandos come down on the deck. One commando can be seen kneeling above the others to provide them with potential cover fire.

Though the AP could not immediately verify the video, it corresponded to known details of the boarding and the helicopter involved appeared to be a Soviet-era Mil Mi-17 helicopter, which both the IRGC and the Iranian-backed Houthis of Yemen have used in the past to conduct commando raids on ships.

The incident comes amid heightened tensions between Iran and the West, with Israel bracing for an attack from Tehran after an April 1 strike on a building in the Iranian embassy compound in the Syrian capital of Damascus, which killed several Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders, including two generals.

Israel’s Foreign Minister Israel Katz called on nations to list the Guard as a terrorist organization.

Iran “is a criminal regime that supports Hamas’ crimes and is now conducting a pirate operation in violation of international law,” Katz said.

In previous seizures, Iran has offered initial explanations about its operations to make it seem like the attacks had nothing to do with the wider geopolitical tensions — though later acknowledging as much. In Saturday’s attack, however, Iran telling offered no explanation for the seizure other than to say the MSC Aries had links to Israel.

For days, Iranian officials up to and including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have been threatening to “slap” Israel for the Syria strike. Western governments have issued warnings to their citizens in the region to be prepared for attacks.

However, Iran in the past largely has avoided directly attacking Israel, despite it carrying out the targeted killing of nuclear scientists and multiple sabotage campaigns against Iran’s atomic sites. Iran has, however, targeted Israeli or Jewish-linked sites through proxy forces over the decades.

The Gulf of Oman is near the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a fifth of all oil passes. Fujairah, on the United Arab Emirates’ eastern coast, is a main port in the region for ships to take on new oil cargo, pick up supplies or trade out crew.

Since 2019, the waters off Fujairah have seen a series of explosions and hijackings. The US Navy blamed Iran for limpet mine attacks on vessels that damaged tankers.

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