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Iranian Forces Seize MSC Containership Near Strait of Hormuz

Iranian troops boarding containership
Troops rappelling from the copter to the MSC Aries (Mehr News - Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License)

Published Apr 13, 2024 1:43 PM by The Maritime Executive

 

On Saturday, Iranian military forces boarded a large containership operated by MSC and directed the ship to sail into Iranian waters. Iranian media is calling the 158,000 dwt MSC Aries an Israeli vessel, but did not make specific accusations leading to the seizure.

MSC issued a brief statement confirming that the vessel had been boarded and directed to Iran. The company said, “We are working closely with the relevant authorities to ensure their wellbeing (referring to the 25 crewmembers aboard) and safe return of the vessel.” 

The MSC Aries is registered in Portugal and owned by an affiliate of Zodiac Maritime, and had departed from the UAE port of Khalifa bound for India. Zodiac is referring media inquires to MSC, the bareboat charterer. 

As the containership approached the Strait of Hormuz, an Iranian helicopter approached and troops rappelled down onto the containers. The ship was approximately 50 nautical miles to the east of Fujairah, UAE, when it was boarded.

In a video shot from the vessel, Associated Press reports crewmembers can be heard saying “Don’t come out,” and then telling colleagues to go to the bridge.

 

 

Media reports are saying that 17 of the 25 crewmembers are Indian nationals, and India's foreign ministry has been in contact with Iran about the crew's well-being. 

The incident has been widely condemned. The International Chamber of Shipping issued a statement calling the incident a “direct contravention of international law.” 

“Iran’s seizure of the MSC Aries is a flagrant breach of international law and an assault on freedom of navigation,” said Guy Platten, Secretary General of the International Chamber of Shipping. “This reprehensible attack against a merchant ship once again places innocent seafarers on the front lines of geopolitical conflict.”

The seizure of the containership comes days after Iran’s Supreme Leader threatened retaliation against Israel after the attack on the Iranian embassy compound in Syria that killed top military officials. He threatened to “punish” the Israeli regime. 

An analyst for United Against a Nuclear Iran (UANI) wrote on social media that this could be part of a multi-layered response from Iran. Hours later there were reports of a missile attack on Israel coming from Iran’s proxies in southern Lebanon and then drones launched from Iran toward Israel.

Iranian and international media are widely citing the ownership of Zodiac Maritime by Israeli businessman Eyal Ofer. Zodiac Maritime is sensitive to the characterization of the company pointing out it is registered in the UK and all its employees are in the UK. In the past, other ships associated with the Ofer family have also been the target of attacks from Iran. The Houthi militants in Yemen have also repeatedly linked MSC vessels to Israel.

In the past, these incidents have been singular events with Iran going after one or two vessels, mostly tankers, as retaliation. However, they repeatedly threatened to disrupt vessel traffic in the Strait of Hormuz.

Well-known industry analyst Peter Sand of Xeneta called today’s incident extremely concerning. He wrote in an analysis, “An already bad situation in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden has just gotten worse and could put ocean freight container imports and oil exports in the Middle East at risk.”

It comes as international efforts against the Houthis appear to have been successful in lessening the pace and scope of attacks on merchant ships. The U.S. Central Command continues to report downing missiles and drones, but the attacks are less intense and frequent. Some merchant ships are passing through the Red Sea with escorts from the navies but the major shipping lines have continued to divert around Africa.