Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Iran’s IRGC seizes ‘Israeli-linked’ ship near Strait of Hormuz

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Tehran, Iran – Iranian armed forces have seized a container ship near the Strait of Hormuz amid rising tensions across the region after a deadly Israeli attack on Iran’s consulate in Syria.

The ship was commandeered by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the elite force that lost seven members, including two generals, in the Syria strike, Iranian state media reported on Saturday.

“The ship has now been guided towards the territorial waters of our country,” state-run IRNA reported.

The vessel was identified as the Portugal-flagged MSC Aries, which reportedly departed from a port in the United Arab Emirates en route to India. It is associated with the London-based Zodiac Maritime, a part of the Zodiac Group run by Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer and his family.

(Al Jazeera)

Footage from the deck of the vessel obtained by The Associated Press news agency on Saturday showed soldiers rappelling down from a helicopter.

‌The helicopter appeared to be a Soviet-designed Mil Mi-17, which is operated by the naval forces of the IRGC.

Zodiac Maritime said in a statement that MSC, an Italian-Swiss shipping group, was responsible for all vessel activities.

MSC confirmed there were 25 crew members on board the ship, adding in a statement that it is “working closely with the relevant authorities to ensure their wellbeing, and safe return of the vessel”.

The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) had said a vessel was seized by “regional authorities” 50 nautical miles (92km) northeast of the UAE’s Fujairah in a waterway vital to world trade.

Another Israeli-linked container ship was attacked and damaged by a drone in the Indian Ocean in late November, which the United States blamed on Iran.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said in a post on X that the move by Iran was “a pirate operation in violation of international law”.

He called on the European Union and “the free world to immediately declare” the IRGC a “terrorist organization and to sanction Iran now”.

White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said the ship’s crew comprised of Indian, Filipino, Pakistani, Russian and Estonian nationals, and pushed back against the vessel’s seizure.

“We call on Iran to release the vessel and its international crew immediately,” she said. “Seizing a civilian vessel without provocation is a blatant violation of international law, and an act of piracy by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.”

Soaring regional tensions

The US military is moving more military assets to the Middle East as it anticipates an Iranian response to the Israeli attack on the consulate in Syria.

A US defence official told Al Jazeera that the move is mainly aimed at better protecting US troops in the region, but also to ramp up regional deterrence.

US media confirmed the move but the Pentagon has not officially said which assets it is moving to the region.

The Wall Street Journal quoted unnamed US officials as saying on Friday that it includes repositioning two destroyers, with one of the warships already in the region and another redirected there.

On Saturday, US President Joe Biden said he was cutting short his weekend stay in Delaware to return to the White House early to meet with his national security team and monitor the security situation ahead of a feared Iranian attack on Israel.

On Friday, Biden said he expected an Iranian retaliation to come “sooner than later” and that Washington will continue to defend Israel.

“Don’t,” he said when asked by reporters if he had a message for Iran.

Since the start of the war on Gaza after the Hamas-led October 7 attacks in Israel, the US has sent thousands of bombs and ammunition to its ally Israel despite growing international criticism, along with moving warships and troops to the region.

John Kirby, the White House’s national security spokesman, said on Friday that Iran’s threats to retaliate against Israel remain “real” and viable”.

General Erik Kurilla, the head of US Central Command in the region, arrived in Israel on Friday to discuss a potential Iranian attack and met with top officials, including Israeli military chief of staff Herzi Halevi.

Israeli military spokesperson Daniel Hagari said that “Iran funds, trains, and arms terror proxies across the Middle East and beyond”, adding that the Islamic republic doesn’t just threaten the people of Israel, Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria”, but “fuels the war in Ukraine and beyond”.

He said that Israel was on “high alert” and was “prepared to respond” to what he called “any Iranian aggression”.

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