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Israel said to believe Iran behind blast on Israeli-owned cargo ship

Vessel’s owner says damage likely caused by missiles or mines, but unlikely it was targeted because of Israeli ownership

Damage is seen in the Israeli-owned ship that hit by an explosion in the Gulf of Oman on February 26, 2021. (Screen capture/Channel 13)
Damage is seen in the Israeli-owned ship that hit by an explosion in the Gulf of Oman on February 26, 2021. (Screen capture/Channel 13)

Israeli officials believe Iran was behind a blast on an Israeli-owned cargo ship in the Gulf of Oman, according to Friday evening reports.

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, but forced it ashore for repairs.

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.

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.

The Israeli-owned cargo ship, Helios Ray, sits docked in port after arriving earlier in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Feb. 28, 2021 (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

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.

Iran did not immediately acknowledge the incident.

The unexplained blast did not injure any of the ship’s 28 crew members, but was forced to the nearby port of Dubai for repairs, the company told The Times of Israel.

The stricken vessel was identified as the MV Helios Ray, a Bahaman-flagged cargo ship carrying vehicles and in transit from Saudi Arabia to Singapore.

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.

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.

Two American defense officials told 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.

Iran denied the accusations, which came after Trump abandoned Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and reimposed harsh sanctions on Iran.

Israel did not immediately comment on the Friday 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.

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