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Netanyahu accuses Iran of attacking Israeli-owned cargo ship

In this Aug. 14, 2020, photo, the vehicle cargo ship Helios Ray is seen at the Port of Chiba in Chiba, Japan. An explosion struck the Israeli-owned Helios Ray as it sailed out of the Middle East on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, an unexplained blast renewing concerns about ship security in the region amid escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran. (Katsumi Yamamoto via AP)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday accused Iran of attacking an Israeli-owned ship in the Gulf of Oman last week, a mysterious explosion that further spiked security concerns in the region.

Without offering any evidence to his claim, Netanyahu told Israeli public broadcaster Kan that “it was indeed an act by Iran, that’s clear.”

“Iran is the greatest enemy of Israel, I am determined to halt it. We are hitting it in the entire region,” Netanyahu said.

The blast struck the Israeli-owned MV Helios Ray, a Bahamian-flagged roll-on, roll-off vehicle cargo ship, as it was sailing out of the Middle East on its way to Singapore on Friday. The crew was unharmed, but the vessel sustained two holes on its port side and two on its starboard side just above the waterline, according to American defense officials.

The ship came to Dubai’s port for repairs on Sunday, days after the blast that revived security concerns in Mideast waterways amid heightened tensions with Iran.

Iran has sought to pressure the U.S. to lift sanctions on Tehran as President Joe Biden’s administration considers option for returning to negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Biden has said repeatedly the U.S. would return to the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers that his predecessor, Donald Trump, withdrew from in 2018 only after Iran restores its full compliance with the accord.

It remains unclear what caused the blast on the vessel. The Helios Ray had discharged cars at various ports in the Persian Gulf before the explosion forced it to reverse course.

In recent days, Israel’s defense minister and army chief had both indicated they held Iran responsible for what they said was an attack on the vessel. There was no immediate response from Iran to the Israeli allegations.

Overnight, Syrian state media reported a series of alleged Israeli airstrikes near Damascus, saying air defense systems had intercepted most of the missiles. Israeli media reports said the alleged airstrikes were on Iranian targets in response to the ship attack.

Israel has struck hundreds of Iranian targets in neighboring Syria in recent years, and Netanyahu has repeatedly said Israel will not accept a permanent Syrian military presence there. Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah have provided military support to Syrian President Bashar Assad in the more than decade-long Syrian civil war.

The Israeli military declined comment.

Iran also has blamed Israel for a recent series of attacks, including another mysterious explosion last summer that destroyed an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at its Natanz nuclear facility and the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a top Iranian scientist who founded the Islamic Republic’s military nuclear program two decades ago. Iran has repeatedly vowed to avenge Fakhrizadeh’s killing.

“It is most important that Iran doesn’t have nuclear weapons, with or without an agreement, this I also told to my friend Biden,” Netanyahu said Monday.

Iranian threats of retaliation have raised alarms in Israel since the signing of normalization deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in September.

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Associated Press writer Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

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