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Iran seizes UK-owned boxship MSC Aries

Weekend hijacking thought to be in response to attack on Iranian consulate in Syria, and further embroils global shipping in geopolitical turbulence in the Middle East

Madeira-flagged, 14,300 teu boxship is operated by MSC, world’s largest container line, and owned by major UK shipowner Zodiac Group, led by Israel-born Eyal Ofer

IRAN’s Revolutionary Guards hijacked a Zodiac Maritime-owned, Mediterranean Shipping Co-chartered boxship early on Saturday as it rounded the Strait of Hormuz.

The 14,300 teu MSC Aries (IMO: 9857169), which had 25 crew on board at the time of the attack, was boarded by Iranian special forces about 80 km off the coast of the United Arab Emirates coast in apparent retaliation for Israel’s attack on the Iranian consulate in Syria earlier this month.

The vessel is owned by UK-based Zodiac Group, but chartered and operated by Switzerland-based MSC, the world’s largest container line.

Zodiac, controlled by Israel-born Eyal Ofer, has been targeted twice in the past five years by Iranian attacks. Zodiac-owned product tanker Hai Shang (IMO: 9792852), previously named Campo Square, was hit by a suspected Iranian drone off the Oman coast in February 2023, and in 2021 two crew were killed when product tanker Spring Street (IMO: 9539585), previously named Mercer Street, was hit by a drone which US intelligence concluded was Iranian.

While MSC Aries was commercially operated by MSC rather than Zodiac, the UK’s Joint Maritime Information Centre said the containership was likely targeted due to its perceived Israeli affiliation.

MSC Aries’ last Automatic Identification System signal was around 1700 hrs GMT on April 12 after it sailed from Abu Dhabi’s Mina Kahlifa port four hours earlier. 

Special naval forces boarded the vessel by helicopter as it was proceeding south, sailing for the Indian port of Nhava Sheva.

Following the seizure the ship was taken into Iranian waters.

The 25 crew include 18 Filipinos, four Pakistani, one Russian, and one Estonian national.

Vessel owners and operators have not heard from them since the hijacking.

Video footage taken by the crew at the time of the attack and obtained by Lloyd’s List shows the helicopter hovering over the vessel as forces descended by rope one by one on to the deck.

The seizure has drawn widespread condemnation from across the shipping industry.

“Iran’s seizure of MSC Aries is a flagrant breach of international law and an assault on freedom of navigation,” said International Chamber of Shipping secretary-general Guy Platten.

“This reprehensible attack against a merchant ship once again places innocent seafarers on the front lines of geopolitical conflict. Our thoughts are with the 25 seafarers who are now captives of Iran, and with the families who are now in fear of their loved ones’ safety. Iran must release the ship as a matter of urgency,” Platten continued.

The ICS warned that ships transiting the region should conduct a thorough threat assessment and liaise closely with military forces to ensure they are fully protected against further possible aggression by Iranian forces.

The seizure further embroils global shipping in geopolitical turbulence linked to the war in Gaza and intensifying conflict between Iran and Israel and amplifies trade disruption.

“An already bad situation in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden has just got worse and could put ocean freight container imports and oil exports in the Middle East at risk,” said Xeneta chief analyst Peter Sand.

“We don’t yet know the full details of the incident in the Strait of Hormuz, but any widening of the conflict which has already resulted in huge disruption to ocean freight services in the Red Sea region would be extremely concerning.

“For example, Dubai is a regional hub for imports as well as sea-air corridors, with containers arriving by ocean via the Strait of Hormuz for onward travel by air to Europe and North America. If ships are impacted from sailing into the Arabian Gulf then the disruption would be considerable.”

Thousand of ships have been diverting from the Suez Canal and Bab el Mandeb strait over the past five months to avoid more than 50 Iran-backed Houthi attacks on vessels transiting the Red Sea to protest Israel’s war on Gaza.

Houthis hijacked car carrier Galaxy Leader (IMO: 9237307), owned by Israeli businessmen Rami Ungar, on November 20 in an orchestrated attack by helicopter, while in January Iran seized Greece-owned tanker St Nikolas (IMO: 9524475). 

It was the suezmax tanker’s first return to the Middle East after being at the centre of an earlier, 14-month dispute between Iran and the US, over its cargo of Iranian crude which was taken by the government and sold.

Iran’s supreme leader warned of retribution for an attack on its consulate on April 1 that killed key commanders and for which Israel was suspected responsible, including threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, a key trade artery.


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