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Iranian commandos seize an Israeli-linked container ship near Strait of Hormuz

This image made from a video provided to The Associated Press by a Mideast defense official shows a helicopter raid targeting a vessel near the Strait of Hormuz on Saturday.
AP
This image made from a video provided to The Associated Press by a Mideast defense official shows a helicopter raid targeting a vessel near the Strait of Hormuz on Saturday.

Updated April 13, 2024 at 11:01 AM ET

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

The Middle East had braced for potential Iranian retaliation over a suspected Israeli strike earlier this month on an Iranian consular building in Syria that killed 12 people, including a senior Guard general who once commanded its expeditionary Quds Force there.

The Israeli war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip meanwhile is now 6 months old and is inflaming decades-old tensions across the whole region. With Iranian-backed forces like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Yemen's Houthi rebels also involved in the fighting, any new attack in the Mideast 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 vessel, 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 later acknowledged the seizure and said 25 crew had been aboard the vessel.

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

An Indian government official, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to brief to journalists, said 17 of the crew were Indians.

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

Earlier, a Middle East defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, shared a video of the attack with The Associated Press. In it, the Iranian commandos are seen rappelling down onto a stack of containers sitting on the deck of the vessel.

A crew member on the ship 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 on the deck. 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 helicopter used also appeared to be a Soviet-era Mil Mi-17 helicopter, which both the Guard and the Iranian-backed Houthis of Yemen have used in the past to conduct commando raids on 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.

Iran since 2019 has engaged 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.

Since November, Iran had dialed back its ship attacks as the Houthis targeted ships in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. Houthi attacks have slowed in recent weeks as the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan ended and the rebels have faced months of U.S.-led airstrikes targeting them.

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

Iran has been threatening to act after Israeli strike in Syria

For days, Iranian officials up to and including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have been threatening to "slap" Israel for the Syria strike. Western governments have issued warnings to their citizens in the region to be prepared for attacks.

However, Iran in the past largely has avoided directly attacking Israel, despite it carrying out the targeted killing of nuclear scientists and multiple sabotage campaigns against Iran's atomic sites. Iran has, however, targeted Israeli or Jewish-linked sites through proxy forces over the decades.

Earlier this week, Guard Gen. Ali Reza Tangsiri, who oversees Iran's naval forces, criticized the presence of Israelis in the region and in the United Arab Emirates. The UAE reached a diplomatic recognition deal with Israel in 2020, something that long has enraged Tehran.

"We know that bringing Zionists in this point is not merely for economic work," Tangsiri reportedly said. "Now, they are carrying out security and military jobs, indeed. This is a threat, and this should not happen."

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.

On Friday, President Joe Biden warned Iran not to attack Israel and said he felt an Iranian attack on Israel likely would happen "sooner than later."

"We will help defend Israel, and Iran will not succeed," Biden added.

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 in the region 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. The U.S. Navy blamed Iran for limpet mine attacks on vessels that damaged tankers. The UAE meanwhile has sought to mend ties with Iran and issued a statement condemning the suspected Israeli attack in Syria.

Meanwhile, Lufthansa Group said on Saturday it had extended the suspension of its flights between Frankfurt and Tehran though Thursday and said that all of its planes would avoid Iranian airspace in that period. The German carrier also said that, until at least Tuesday, flights to and from Amman will be operated as "day flights" so crews can return to Frankfurt without spending a night in the Jordanian capital.

Dutch airline KLM said in a statement Saturday that it will no longer fly over Iran or Israel, but will continue flights to and from Tel Aviv, a destination not currently deemed risky. "Safety has the highest priority," KLM said.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press