A Briton is among two crew members killed when an oil tanker linked to an Israeli billionaire was attacked off the coast of Oman.
The M/T Mercer Street, a Japanese-owned ship managed by a company owned by billionaire Eyal Ofer, was targeted late Thursday near the island of Masirah in the Arabian Sea – with an Israeli official saying the vessel was hit by a drone.
Zodiac Maritime, the company which operates the ship, said two crew members were killed during an attack by ‘unknown assailants’ including one British national and one Romanian.
Analysts said the attack bore all the hallmarks of tit-for-tat exchanged in the ‘shadow war’ between Israel and Iran, which has seen frequent attacks on vessels around the Arabian peninsula in the last three years.
While no government or group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, Iran and its proxy groups are known to operate combat drones and have markedly increased their use in recent months.
The British victim worked as a guard for UK maritime security firm Ambrey, the company said.
Israeli-operated tanker Mercer Street was attacked north east of the island of Masirah, near the coast of Oman, late on Thursday night
‘We are not aware of harm to any other personnel,’ the London-based office of Zodiac Maritime said, adding that it is investigating alongside UK authorities.
Details about the attack are remain sparse, and what little information has been released appears contradictory.
The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, a branch of the Royal Navy, said the attack happened Thursday night and did not involve piracy.
However, a statement put out by Zodiac said the company is investigating ‘a suspected piracy incident’ on board the vessel.
The company said the tanker was travelling from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest port, to Fujairah in the UAE with no cargo on board when the attack happened.
‘We will provide additional information as it becomes available,’ the statement said.
Israeli officials did not immediately acknowledge the incident, and neither did Iranian state-owned media.
Meir Javedanfar, an expert on Iranian diplomacy and security at Israel’s IDC Herzliya university, told AFP the attack was ‘most probably Iran’.
Exact details of how the attack occurred have not yet been confirmed.
Javedanfar said Iranians ‘feel badly disadvantaged when it comes to responding to attacks inside Iran which have been associated to Israel’, including an April strike on the Natanz uranium enrichment site reportedly executed by Israel.
An attack on a maritime vessel ‘is one area where (Iranians) feel they can try to at least retaliate,’ he added, calling the latest strike an escalation in the ‘shadow war’ between the two Middle Eastern powerhouses.
But he assessed the fundamental dynamics of the rivalry would change little. ‘Both sides will continue what they’re doing,’ he said.
Zodiac Maritime is part of the Zodiac Group, owned by billionaire Ofer, whose enterprises span shipping, real estate, technology, banking and investments.
Ofer was ranked the world’s 197th richest person by Forbes this year, with a fortune of $11.3billion. His firms own and operate over 160 ships.
In Israel, the office of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, and spokespeople for Defence Minister Benny Gantz and the Israeli army, declined to comment on the attack.
But it comes amid heightened tensions between Israel and Iran as negotiations remain stalled over Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers.
Tankers linked to Israel and other US allies have been targeted by attacks around the Arabian peninsula dating back to 2019.
In May that year, a series of explosions and fires on oil tankers linked both Iran and Saudi Arabia around the Arabian Peninsula brought the two sides close to war.
The blasts began in when four tankers – two Saudi-flagged, one Norwegian-flagged and one Emirati-flagged – were damaged near the coast of UAE.
Then in June, the Front Altair and Kokuka Courageous were damaged in what was initially reported as a fire on the latter vessel.
American intelligence agencies backed by the UK and Saudi Arabia later accused Iran of attaching limpet mines to the side of the tankers, blowing holes in the hull which sparked the blaze.
Mercer Street is operated by Zodiac Maritime, part of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group. The firm said it was sailing from Tanzania to the UAE with no cargo when it was hit
That was followed by drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia’s largest oil processing facility at Abqaiq which it blamed on Iran.
In October, Iran then reported that one of its oil tankers had been hit by two missiles in the Red Sea, on the other side of the Arabian Peninsula, in what it said was a ‘terrorist attack.’
Then, the follow year, Iran was hit by a series of major fires that broke out on land – sparking rumours of sabotage operations.
Israeli ships have been targeted in recent months, with the MV Helios Ray – a car carrier – hit by an explosion in February that Israel blamed on Tehran.
In March, an Israeli-owned cargo ship was also hit by rockets which Tel Aviv again said had come from Iran.
Two more attacks in April and May also targeted Israeli-owned vessels around Oman and in the northern Indian ocean.
Earlier on Thursday, the British military group had said it was investigating another unexplained incident in the same area, but it did not elaborate.
Later Friday, the British Defense Ministry identified the nationality of the ship’s owners, but did not elaborate further.
Oman did not immediately acknowledge an attack and officials there did not respond to requests for comment.
The U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, which patrols the Mideast, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The incident comes amid heightened tensions over Iran’s tattered nuclear deal and as negotiations over restoring the accord have stalled in Vienna.
Since then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the accord in 2018, there have been a series of ship attacks in the region suspected to have been carried out by Tehran.