Iran seizes Israel-linked container vessel

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Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards have seized an Israeli-owned container ship in the latest escalation of hostilities between the Islamic republic and Israel.

The capture of the ship comes as Tehran has been vowing to respond to a suspected Israeli air strike on Iran’s consular building in Damascus this month that killed seven guards members, including two senior commanders.

Video published online showed two figures sliding from a helicopter down ropes on to the deck of the MSC Aries, a 366m-long container ship, in the Gulf of Oman. The vessel is owned by Zodiac Maritime, a company controlled by Israel’s Ofer family.

IRNA, Iran’s state news agency said the guards’ naval forces had captured the ship.

The seizure took place in the Gulf of Oman, close to the critical chokepoint of the Strait of Hormuz, separating the Arabian peninsula from Iran.

Geneva-based Mediterranean Shipping Company, the world’s largest container shipping line, confirmed that the vessel had been seized by “Iranian authorities” and was owned by Zodiac.

The ship was operating a service for MSC from the United Arab Emirates port of Khalifa to Nhava Sheva in Mumbai.

“She has since been diverted from her itinerary towards Iran,” the company said. It added that the ship had 25 crew on board. “We are working closely with the relevant authorities to ensure their wellbeing, and safe return of the vessel,” MSC said.

The seizure is the first in waters off Iran since January, when Iranian forces seized the Greek-owned oil tanker St Nikolas in a similar position.

The UK’s Maritime Trade Operations office, based in Dubai, reported that the vessel had been “seized by regional authorities”.

A bulletin on the incident from Ambrey, a UK maritime intelligence company, said that Zodiac had encountered “Iranian hostile acts” in the past because of its Israeli ownership.

“Israeli-owned shipping is advised to reconsider transiting the Strait of Hormuz,” Ambrey wrote.

Iranian forces have previously concentrated on seizing oil and oil product tankers, rather than container ships.

There was no immediate comment from Zodiac.

The waters of the Strait of Hormuz, near where the MSC Aries was seized, are the world’s most important route for oil tankers, carrying oil from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf producers to the wider world. They are also an important route for container ships going to and from Khalifa and the vast container port at Jebel Ali, in Dubai.

Container ships have mostly stopped sailing through waters off Yemen since December, after Iranian-backed Houthis launched a series of attacks on vessels linked with Israel, the UK and US, claiming to be acting in support of Gaza’s Palestinians. However, the route through the Strait of Hormuz had not until now been as big a concern.

The MSC Aries’ Automatic Identification System stopped broadcasting shortly after the vessel left Khalifa. Ships seized previously by Iran, including the St Nikolas, have generally been taken to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.

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