Israel blamed Iran for an alleged drone attack on an oil tanker in the Arabian Sea that killed two crew members, including a British national, and promised a harsh response.
Liberian-flagged Mercer Street, which is linked to an Israeli tycoon, was hit Thursday evening off the coast of Oman in what was believed to have been a swarm attack involving several drones.
The strike appeared to fit a pattern of previous attacks on shipping traffic linked to Iran and Israel, carried out as part of a phantom war between the two enemies. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said on Friday evening that he had contacted Dominic Raab, his British counterpart.
“Iran is not just an Israeli problem, but an exporter of terrorism, destruction and instability that harms us all,” he said. “The world must not remain silent in the face of Iranian terrorism which also undermines the freedom of navigation. “
Although Mercer Street is owned by the Japanese, it is run by an Israeli company, Zodiac Maritime, which is part of billionaire Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac group, which admitted to the deaths and initially called the incident piracy. The other victim was a Romanian national, the cabinet said. The hacking allegation was later dismissed by regional officials.
The regional high seas have seen around 150 or more strikes over the past three years, in Gulf waters, the Red Sea and the eastern Mediterranean coast, many of which have gone unrecognized by both sides.
Drones have been used more and more by both sides throughout this year. Previously, it is believed that mines placed on ship hulls and sometimes small rockets were deployed in incidents that damaged dozens of ships.
While navigation disruptions have been common, fatalities have been rare. A drone strike reportedly carried out on an Iranian tanker off the Syrian coast in the spring killed three people when a missile burst through the ship’s deck. In June, Iran’s largest navy ship sank near Oman after its engine room mysteriously caught fire.
Mayday calls were detected in neighboring Oman and Saudi Arabia on Thursday evening. The US Navy reportedly escorted Mercer Street to the Omani island of Masirah.
The British Army’s UK Maritime Trade Operations said an investigation was underway into the attack and coalition forces were participating.
A US official told The Associated Press that the attack appeared to have been carried out by a “one-way” drone and that other drones were involved. The official said it was not immediately clear who launched the attack.
A UK government spokesperson said: “Our hearts go out to the relatives of a British national who died following an incident at an oil tanker off the coast of Oman.
“Ships must be allowed to navigate freely in accordance with international law. We are working with our international partners to urgently establish the facts. “
The Defense Ministry said: “We are aware of reports of an attack on a merchant vessel off the coast of Oman. British military headquarters in the region are currently investigating. “
Britain’s maritime security company Ambrey said the attack killed one of its crew, as well as a member of the tanker’s crew.
“It is with deep regret that I can confirm that a member of the Ambrey team was tragically killed in a security incident,” the company said Friday. “The incident took place in the northern Indian Ocean aboard the tanker M / T Mercer Street. We can confirm that a crew member was also killed.
“We are currently working in close collaboration with our client and the competent authorities, while offering all possible support to the relatives of the victim. Our hearts go out to the family and friends of those involved in this incredibly sad time. “
Tehran-backed Iranian and Houthi rebels in Yemen have increasingly deployed drone swarm technology against regional enemies. In May 2019, half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production capacity was taken offline for several weeks when several drones targeted the country’s main production facility.
Washington and Riyadh believe the attack was launched on the Iranian side of the border with Iraq, near Gulf waters.
The incident came as talks between Tehran and Washington to reactivate the nuclear deal continued to stagnate. Hours before the strike, the United States had declared its frustration at the slow pace of negotiations in Vienna, which would lift the sanctions reimposed by Donald Trump after his predecessor Barack Obama lifted them during his second term as President of States -United.
The Mercer Street traveled from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania to Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates without any cargo on board. It is the second vessel linked to the Israeli tycoon to be targeted this month. The first, the container ship CSAV Tyndall, suffered damage from an unexplained explosion in the Indian Ocean.
“With deep sadness we understand that the incident aboard M / T Mercer Street on July 29, 2021 resulted in the deaths of two crew members on board: a Romanian national and a British national,” Zodiac Maritime wrote. on Twitter. “We are not aware of any damage to other staff.”
The deaths are expected to trigger a larger response in the coming days than the dozens of previous strikes, which only caused property damage.
The shadowy conflict between Iran and Israel has unfolded on regional waterways and from the skies over Syria and Iraq, where Israeli jets have regularly bombarded targets that Israel believes it is linked to Iran.
Whether on land or water, neither side generally claims responsibility for the strikes they launch, preferring a series of low-key tit-for-tat responses and an absence of rhetoric that could lead to escalation.