(Bloomberg) — U.S. Navy experts believe a drone struck an oil tanker with links to an Israeli billionaire off Oman this week, the Associated Press reported, citing the American military.
Two crew members — a Romanian and a U.K. citizen — were killed when the Mercer Street came under attack on Thursday, the first fatalities in years in the volatile shipping corridor.
The 600-foot (183 meter) tanker was sailing, empty of cargo, from Tanzania’s Dar es Salam to Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates, said London-based Zodiac Maritime Ltd., manager of the vessel.
Zodiac is controlled by real estate and shipping magnate Eyal Ofer and operates the Japanese-owned carrier. Ofer is among Israel’s richest people, with a net worth of $11.3 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
The shipping company’s initial statement said pirates appeared to be responsible, but Israel suggested Iran was behind the incident.
“This isn’t the first time we are aware of Iran’s aggression in the seas, and generally in the region, and by that hurting civilians,” a senior Israeli official said.
Iran hasn’t commented directly, but the state-run Al-Alam television network reported that Mercer Street was targeted in retaliation for a recent Israeli strike on Syria.
The U.S. aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and the guided missile destroyer USS Mitscher escorted the Mercer Street to a safe port, the Navy’s Middle East-based 5th Fleet said in a statement on Saturday reported by AP.
The deaths marked an escalation in maritime tensions, since it’s unusual for people to be killed in such attacks, whether they involve pirates or state forces.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jalina Porter said Friday that the U.S. is working with partners to establish the facts about the attack. She declined to speculate on possible Iranian involvement.
On Friday, Saudi Arabia said it thwarted an attempted drone attack by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels on one of its commercial ships, Al Arabiya television reported.
The U.K. Maritime Trade Operations, a Royal Navy capability, reported two incidents in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday, one of which it said was not piracy. It’s unclear if there’s any connection between the situations.
The area has seen repeated attacks on Israeli and Iranian ships since February this year that the two states have blamed on each other, with both denying responsibility.
“Vessels must be allowed to navigate freely in accordance with international law,” a spokeswoman for the U.K. Foreign Office said via email. “We are working with our international partners to urgently establish the facts.”
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