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Iran’s Revolutionary Guard seizes container ship amid tensions with Israel

Updated April 13, 2024 - 11:34 am

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Commandos from Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard rappelled from a helicopter onto an Israeli-affiliated container ship near the Strait of Hormuz and seized the vessel Saturday in the latest attack between the two countries.

The seizure followed a suspected Israeli strike this month on an Iranian consular building in Syria that killed 12 people, including a senior Guard general.

U.S. President Joe Biden cut short a weekend trip to his beach house in Delaware to return to the White House and monitor the situation in the Middle East, where Israel’s war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip has inflamed decade-old tensions. With Iranian-backed forces like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Yemen’s Houthi rebels also involved in the fighting, any new attack threatens to escalate that conflict into a wider regional war.

Iran’s state-run IRNA said a special forces unit of the Guard’s navy carried out the attack on 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. Zodiac declined to comment and referred questions to MSC. Geneva-based MSC acknowledged the seizure and said 25 crew members were on the ship.

“We are working closely with the relevant authorities to ensure their wellbeing, and safe return of the vessel,” MSC said.

White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said the crew was made up of Indian, Filipino, Pakistani, Russian and Estonian nationals and urged Iran to release them and the vessel.

IRNA said the Guard would take the vessel into Iranian territorial waters.

A Middle East defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, provided video of the attack to The Associated Press in which Iranian commandos are seen rappelling onto a stack of containers on the vessel’s deck.

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

The video corresponded with known details of the MSC Aries. The commandos rappelled from what appeared to be a Soviet-era Mil Mi-17 helicopter, which both the Guard and the Iranian-backed Houthis have used before to raid ships.

The British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations described the vessel as being “seized by regional authorities” in the Gulf of Oman off the Emirati port city of Fujairah, without elaborating.

Israeli 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.

For days, Iranian officials including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have threatened to “slap” Israel for its Syria strike.

The U.S., Israel’s main backer, has stood by the country despite growing concerns over Israel’s war on Gaza killing more than 33,600 Palestinians and wounding over 76,200 more. Israel’s war began after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel that killed 1,200 people and saw some 250 others taken hostage.

The Pentagon said Saturday that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with his Israeli counterpart “to discuss urgent regional threats … and made clear that Israel could count on full U.S. support to defend Israel against any attacks by Iran and its regional proxies.”

Iran since 2019 has engaged in a series of ship seizures, and attacks on vessels have been attributed to it amid ongoing tensions with the West over its rapidly advancing nuclear program.

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

Iran has largely avoided directly attacking Israel, despite its targeted killings of nuclear scientists and sabotage campaigns on Iran’s atomic sites. Iran has targeted Israeli or Jewish-linked sites through proxy forces.

In Iran on Saturday, officials publicly denied faked text messages sent in the name of civil defense authorities that urged the public to “prepare drinking water and dry food” due to the “emerging emergency situation.

The Gulf of Oman is near the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a fifth of all globally traded oil passes. Fujairah, on the United Arab Emirates’ eastern coast, is a main port 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.

Meanwhile, Lufthansa Group on Saturday extended its suspension of flights between Frankfurt and Tehran through Thursday and said its planes would avoid Iranian airspace. The German carrier also said that, until at least Tuesday, flights to and from Amman will be operated as “day flights” so crews won’t spend a night in the Jordanian capital.

Dutch airline KLM said it will no longer fly over Iran or Israel but will continue flights to and from Tel Aviv.

Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, Krutika Pathi in New Delhi, Stephen Graham in Berlin and Thomas Adamson in Paris contributed to this report.

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