TEL AVIV - Israel accused Iran on Wednesday of being linked to a recent oil spill off its shores that caused major ecological damage, calling the incident environmental terrorism.
The spill was caused by an oil tanker that was carrying pirated cargo from Iran to Syria last month, Israeli Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel said.
The vessel sailed through the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea without radio contact, switching its tracking devices back on before passing through Egypt's Suez Canal, Gamliel told reporters.
It turned the devices off again before entering Israeli waters in the eastern Mediterranean, and it dropped oil into the sea February 1 or 2, she said, naming the vessel as the Panama-flagged oil tanker Emerald.
"Iran is [conducting] terrorism by damaging the environment, and [when] Iran is damaging the environment, it isn't just hurting the state of Israel," Gamliel said.
There was no immediate comment from Iran.
Israel has now twice within a week accused longtime enemy Iran of wrongdoing at sea. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed Tehran for an explosion aboard an Israeli-owned ship in the Gulf of Oman last week, an accusation Tehran rejected.
Tensions have risen in the Gulf region since the United States reimposed sanctions on Iran in 2018 after then-President Donald Trump withdrew Washington from a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and major powers.
The oil spill blackened beaches up and down the Israeli coast, and clumps of sticky black tar have washed up on the shores of south Lebanon and the Gaza Strip as well.
Environmental groups are calling it an ecological disaster that could take years to clean up.
Gamliel said the vessel was "owned and operated by a Libyan," without identifying a person or company. Libya's state-owned shipping firm, the General National Maritime Transport Co., said it had owned the vessel but sold it at an auction in December.
Emerald Marine Ltd., a company based in the Marshall Islands, bought the vessel, according to the shipping database Equasis. Reuters was not immediately able to reach the company for comment.
Gamliel said the vessel turned its tracking devices back on again upon reaching Syria on February 3, where she said it unloaded crude oil. It then returned to Iran, where it is currently anchored, she said.
Refinitiv ship tracking data showed the vessel reported a destination of Sohar in Oman, across the Gulf of Oman from Iran, on January 20, meaning it was around Iran's coast at that time.
The ship tracking data did not show any destinations in Iran, though it is common for vessels to conceal their movements there.
The vessel reported its position after passing through the Suez Canal on February 1, Refinitiv data showed. It next reported its position with a destination of Mersin in Turkey on February 3, showing a gap between February 1 and February 3.
An international convention requires merchant ships to have a satellite-tracking device on board when traveling at sea. But a ship's captain has the discretion to switch the transponder off under certain circumstances, enabling the ship to avoid detection.
The Israeli environmental protection ministry said it had collected strong "circumstantial evidence" that this was the ship responsible for the spill, though it did not have "forensic evidence." It said it also ruled out any other source.