Two crew members of an oil tanker operated by a prominent Israeli businessman’s company were killed off Oman in what appears to be a drone strike, the ship’s London-based operator and the US military said Friday, with Israel blaming Iran. .
Tehran is sowing “violence and destruction,” said an Israeli official.
The Islamic Republic “is not only Israel’s problem, but it is the world’s problem. Its behavior threatens freedom of navigation and global trade,” the official added.
US naval forces came to the rescue of the crew in response to a distress call and saw evidence of the attack, a US military statement said.
It added that early indications “clearly point” to a drone-style attack, and that US naval vessels were now escorting the ship with US personnel on board to assist.
Analysts said the attack bore all the hallmarks of tit-for-tat exchanges in the “shadow war” between Israel and Iran, in which ships linked to each country have been targeted in Gulf waters.
The Israeli official warned that “our campaign against them (Iran) will continue”.
Zodiac Maritime, owned by Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer, said the incident aboard MT Mercer Street on Thursday killed a Romanian and a British national who was a security guard for British maritime security firm Ambrey.
The ship was in the northern Indian Ocean and was traveling from Dar es Salaam to Fujairah with no cargo on board when the attack took place, it said.
“We are not aware of any damage to other personnel,” it said in a statement, adding that the Japanese tanker was back under control of its crew and steaming to a secret “safe location” under US naval escort.
Oman’s state news agency said the country’s navy sent a ship and confirmed the attack took place outside the sultanate’s territorial waters.
The United States, a key ally of Israel and arch-rival of Iran, expressed concern and said it was working to “establish the facts.”
Meir Javedanfar, an expert on Iranian diplomacy and security at Israel’s IDC Herzliya University, told AFP the attack was “most likely Iran”.
Iran’s state television channel in Arabic Al-Alam, citing “informed regional sources”, said the attack was a “reaction to a recent Israeli attack” targeting an airport in central Syria. It gave no further details.
Javedanfar said Iranians “feel very disadvantaged when it comes to responding to attacks in Iran associated with Israel,” including an April attack on the Natanz uranium enrichment site allegedly carried out by Israel.
An attack on a seagoing vessel “is an area where (Iranians) feel they can at least retaliate,” he added, calling the latest strike an escalation in the “shadow war” between the two Middle Eastern powers.
But he estimated that the fundamental dynamics of the rivalry would change little.
“Both sides will continue with what they are doing,” he said.
Zodiac Maritime is part of the Zodiac Group, owned by billionaire Ofer, whose businesses include shipping, real estate, technology, banking and investment.
Ofer was ranked as the 197th richest person in the world by Forbes this year, with a fortune of $11.3 billion. His companies own and operate more than 160 vessels.
Zodiac initially called the attack on the MT Mercer Street “a suspected piracy incident”.
The Arabian Sea and surrounding Indian Ocean were ravaged by piracy about a decade ago, but in recent years the incidents have abated after foreign navies stepped up their patrols.
An anti-piracy task force led by the British Royal Navy, which released a report of “a ship being attacked” about 152 nautical miles (280 kilometers) off the coast of Oman, classified the incident as “non-piracy”.
Maritime industry analysts Dryad Global said the attack was similar to previous incidents against ships linked to Israel and Iran.
Earlier this year, two ships belonging to the Israeli company Ray Shipping were attacked.
“The attack on the MT Mercer Street is now rated as the fifth attack on a ship linked to Israel,” Dryad said in an emailed note about the incident.
But it said before confirming the deaths that the loss of two staff members “would represent a significant escalation in events that … would likely lead to significant international condemnation and require diplomatic redress”.