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Explosion hits Israeli-owned ship

Report blames Iran as tensions heighten in Middle East by JON GAMBRELL AND ISABEL DEBRE THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | February 27, 2021 at 5:13 a.m.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- An explosion struck an Israeli-owned cargo ship sailing out of the Middle East on Friday, an unexplained blast renewing concerns about ship security in the region amid escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

The crew and vessel were safe, according to the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which is run by the British navy. The explosion in the Gulf of Oman forced the vessel to head to the nearest port.

The incident recalled the summer of 2019, when the same site saw a series of suspected attacks that the U.S. Navy blamed on Iran, which Tehran denied. Meanwhile, as U.S. President Joe Biden tries to revive nuclear negotiations with Iran, he ordered overnight airstrikes on facilities in Syria belonging to a powerful Iranian-backed Iraqi armed group.

Dryad Global, a maritime intelligence firm, identified the stricken vessel as the MV Helios Ray, a Bahamian-flagged roll-on, roll-off vehicle cargo ship. Another private security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, similarly identified the ship as the Helios Ray.

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Satellite-tracking data from website MarineTraffic.com showed the Helios Ray had been nearly entering the Arabian Sea early Friday before it suddenly turned around and began heading back toward the Strait of Hormuz. It was coming from Dammam, Saudi Arabia, and still listed Singapore as its destination on its tracker.

Israel's Channel 13, in an unsourced report, said the assessment in Israel is that Iran was behind the blast. Israeli officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The blast comes as Tehran increasingly breaches its 2015 nuclear accord with world powers to create leverage over Washington. Iran is seeking to pressure Biden to grant the sanctions relief it received under the deal that former President Donald Trump abandoned nearly three years ago.

Iran also has blamed Israel for a recent series of attacks, including a mysterious explosion last summer that destroyed an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at its Natanz nuclear facility and the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a top Iranian scientist who founded the Islamic Republic's military nuclear program two decades ago.

Capt. Ranjith Raja of the data firm Refinitiv said that the Israeli-owned vessel had left the Persian Gulf Thursday bound for Singapore. On early Friday, the vessel stopped for at least 9 hours east of a main Omani port before making a 360-degree turn and sailing toward Dubai, likely for damage assessment and repairs, he said.

The vessel came loaded with cargo from Europe. It discharged vehicles at several ports in the region, Raja added, including in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, with its last port of call at Dammam.

While details of the explosion remained unclear, two American defense officials said that the ship had sustained two holes on its port side and two holes on its starboard side just above the waterline in the blast. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it remained unclear what caused the holes.

A United Nations ship database identified the vessel's owners as a Tel Aviv-based firm called Ray Shipping Ltd. -- calls to Ray Shipping rang unanswered Friday.

Abraham Ungar, 74, is the founder of Ray Shipping Ltd., and is known as one of the richest men in Israel.

The U.S. Navy's Bahrain-based 5th Fleet said it was "aware and monitoring" the situation.

While the circumstances of the explosion remain unclear, Dryad Global said it was very possible the blast stemmed from "asymmetric activity by Iranian military."

As Iran seeks to pressure the United States to lift sanctions, the country may seek "to exercise forceful diplomacy through military means," Dryad reported. Iran did not immediately acknowledge the incident.

Friday's incident also follows normalization deals between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain. The agreements, met with scathing criticism from Iran, solidified an emerging regional alliance against the Islamic Republic.

Information for this article was contributed by Laurie Kellma, Josef Federman and Robert Burns of The Associated Press.

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