A MYSTERY explosion has hit an Israeli cargo ship in the Gulf of Oman after Joe Biden ordered an airstrike on Iran-backed ‘Guardians of Blood’ militia.
The vessel was struck by an unexplained blast while sailing out of the Middle East, forcing it to head to the nearest port.
It has renewed concerns about ship security amid escalating tensions between the US and Iran in the area.
Both the crew and ship, MV Helios Ray, were safe, according to the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which is run by the British navy.
The incident happened at the same site where a series of suspected attacks happened in 2019 that the US Navy blamed on Iran, which Tehran denied.
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.
Satellite-tracking data from website MarineTraffic.com showed the Helios Ray had been close to the Arabian Sea around 6am on 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.
According to two American defence officials, the ship had sustained two holes on its port side and two holes on its starboard side just above the waterline in the blast
A United Nations ship database identified the owner of the vessel as a Tel Aviv-based firm called Ray Shipping Ltd.
The US Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet said it was aware and monitoring the situation, Associated Press reported.
While the circumstances of the explosion remain unclear, Dryad Global said it was very possible the blast stemmed from “asymmetric activity by Iranian military.”
Tensions have escalated in the Gulf region since the US reimposed sanctions on Iran in 2018 after the then-president, Donald Trump, withdrew Washington from Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal.
As Iran seeks to pressure the US to lift sanctions, the country may “seek to exercise forceful diplomacy through military means”, Dryad reported. Iran did not immediately acknowledge the incident.
Meanwhile, as president Joe Biden tries to revive nuclear negotiations with Iran, he ordered his first military operation with an airstrike in Syria in the wake of rocket attacks by fanatics on American targets in neighbouring Iraq.
The US dropped seven 500-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) reportedly killing 22 at a crossing used by Iranian-backed militia groups to move weapons across the border.
The US appeared to be retaliating for a February 15 rocket attack on the American military base at Erbil International Airport – which was later claimed by the Guardians of Blood Brigade.
That attack, in a region run by Kurds, killed one contractor who was not American and injured numerous American contractors and an American service member.
The US has not definitively blamed any specific group for the outrage or attributed it to any Iranian proxies in the region, but the administration had made it clear where it places the blame.
“At President Biden’s direction, US military forces… conducted airstrikes against infrastructure utilized by Iranian-backed militant groups in eastern Syria,” said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby after the strike.
Kirby said that Biden ordered the strikes at Al Bukamal after consulting with US allies, including coalition partners.
They were authorised “in response to recent attacks against American and Coalition personnel in Iraq, and to ongoing threats to those personnel,” he stated.
“President Biden will act to protect American and Coalition personnel. At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq.”
He revealed that the strikes destroyed multiple facilities at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups, including Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS).
Pentagon officials later revealed they had offered up several larger groups of targets but Biden approved the smallest option.
“I’m confident in the target that we went after, we know what we hit,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters flying with him from California to Washington.
He added: “We’re confident that that target was being used by the same Shia militants that conducted the strikes,” he said, referring to the February 15 attack.
“We said a number of times that we will respond on our timeline. We wanted to be sure of the connectivity and we wanted to be sure that we had the right targets.”
A little-known Shiite militant group calling itself Saraya Awliya al-Dam, Arabic for Guardians of Blood Brigade, claimed responsibility for the February 15 attack.
A week later, a rocket attack in Baghdad’s Green Zone appeared to target the US Embassy compound, but no one was hurt.
Iran this week said it has no links to the Guardians of Blood Brigade.
The rocket attacks on US positions in Iraq were carried out as Washington and Tehran are looking for a way to return to the 2015 nuclear deal abandoned by former US President Donald Trump.
It was not clear how, or whether, the strike might affect U.S. efforts to coax Iran back into a negotiation about both sides resuming compliance with the agreement.
There was no official comment from Syria on the strikes, but state-owned Ekhbariya TV quoted its reporter in Deir al-Zor as stating that strikes had taken place at dawn against several targets near the Syrian-Iraqi border.
Thursday’s airstrike was limited in a manner that could possibly lower the chance of tensions escalating.
The US’s decision to hit Syria but not Iraq allows the latter to launch its own probe into the February 15 attack.
Earlier this week, one of the main Iraqi militia groups aligned with Iran, called the Kataib Hezbollah group, denied responsibility of any kind for the rocket attacks this month.
Days after the February 15 attack, a salvo struck a base north of Baghdad hosting American forces and injured at least one contractor.
The US has carried out retaliatory military strikes multiple times in recent years.
Beginning in late 2019, the US responded to rocket attacks by striking the Kataib Hezbollah militia group in Syria and Iraq.
The two sides attacked each other repeatedly during the Trump administration and the US ultimately killed Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani.
Iran retaliated last year with a ballistic missile attack against American forces in Iraq.
The latest rocket attacks occurred as the US and Tehran explore ways to return to an agreement after former President Donald Trump abandoned the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.