ISLAMABAD / DUBAI: A Portuguese-flagged container ship, the MSC Aries, was seized by Iran on April 13 for “violating maritime laws”, Iran’s foreign ministry said on Monday, while its mission in Pakistan said it was working to confirm if there were indeed any Pakistani nationals on board the vessel.

The Revolutionary Guards had seized the cargo vessel in the Strait of Hormuz last week, days after Tehran vowed to retaliate for a suspected Israeli strike on its consulate in Damascus on April 1.

Iran had said it could close the crucial shipping route in response.

Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency reported that a Guards helicopter had boarded the MSC Aries and taken it into Iranian waters.

Tehran in contact with Islamabad to confirm if any Pakistanis among crew

On Saturday, Iran launched a barrage of missiles and explosive drones in its first direct attack on Israeli territory, a strike that Tehran said was an act of self-defence following the bombing of its consulate.

“The vessel was diverted into Iran’s territorial waters as a result of violating maritime laws and not answering calls made by Iranian authorities,” spokesperson Nasser Kanaani was quoted by Reuters as saying, adding that Iran was certain the vessel was linked to Israel.

MSC, which operates the Aries, confirmed Iran had seized the ship and said it was working “with the relevant authorities” for its safe return and the wellbeing of its 25 crew.

MSC leases the Aries from Gortal Shipping, an affiliate of Zodiac Maritime, the latter said in a statement, adding that MSC is responsible for all the vessel’s activities. Zodiac is partly owned by Israeli businessman Eyal Ofer.

Pakistani crew

Meanwhile, the Iranian mission in Pakistan said on Monday that it could not yet confirm whether any Pakistani nationals or sailors were on board the seized ship.

Sharing a statement from Tehran’s ambassador in Islamabad, a spokesperson told Dawn they had received details about the Pakistani citizens through Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Sunday, and conveyed them to their capital.

“We are following the issue in contact with the Iranian and Pakistani foreign ministries,” the statement said, adding that they were awaiting a response from Tehran.

Media reports suggested that at least two Pakistanis were on board the MSC Aries, with the ship’s Chief Operating Officer (COO) Muhammad Adnan Aziz being one of them.

According to Geo News, family sources close to Mr Aziz said he was in fact on the seized vessel. They also claimed to have approached the Foreign Office to seek his safe return.

There are also said to be around 17 Indians on board, and India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar is said to be in contact with his Iranian counterpart to secure their release.

Shipping disruption

Reuters quoted Stephen Cotton, General Secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation, the leading seafarers’ union, as saying that “innocent seafarers must be protected from escalating conflicts they have no role in instigating, nor power to resolve”.

The International Chamber of Shipping called the seizure a “flagrant breach of international law and an assault on freedom of navigation”.

Patrick Verhoeven, managing director of the International Association of Ports and Harbors, said the seizure of the MSC Aries “has the potential to further disrupt cargo transits in and out of the region, which will impact all of our member ports, one way or another”.

Published in Dawn, April 16th, 2024

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