Israel suspects Iran connection to Mediterranean oil spill

A dog smells pieces of tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean Sea, on a beach in the Gdor Nature Reserve near Michmoret, Israel, Monday, March 1, 2021. The cleanup from the disastrous oil spill that has blackened most of the country's shoreline is expected to take months. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
A dog smells pieces of tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean Sea, on a beach in the Gdor Nature Reserve near Michmoret, Israel, Monday, March 1, 2021. The cleanup from the disastrous oil spill that has blackened most of the country's shoreline is expected to take months. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

JERUSALEM – Israeli authorities said Wednesday that a Libyan-owned tanker suspected of smuggling oil from Iran to Syria was responsible for spilling tons of crude into the eastern Mediterranean last month, causing one of Israel's worst environmental disasters.

Over 90% of Israel’s 195 kilometer (120-mile) Mediterranean coastline was covered in more than 1,000 tons of black tar, the result of the mysterious oil spill in international waters.

The ecological disaster, one of the worst in the country’s history, has caused extensive damage and forced the closure of beaches and a ban on the sale of seafood from the Mediterranean.

Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel said the Panamanian-flagged “pirate ship owned by a Libyan company” — identified as the “Emerald” — filled its stores with oil in the Persian Gulf, then sailed with its transmitters off toward the coast of Syria.

Ministry officials said it is believed to have dumped its oil in the eastern Mediterranean, around 70 kilometers (40 miles) off the coast of Israel, on Feb. 1 or 2.

The ship-tracking website MarineTraffic.com listed the owner as the General National Maritime Transport Co. The company, which describes itself as Libyan state-owned with a fleet of 22 vessels, did not respond to messages left after working hours.

But the U.N.-run International Maritime Organization said that as of late December 2020, the Emerald came under new ownership. It lists the active owner as Emerald Marine Ltd., which is registered in the Marshall Islands. The Marshall Islands Maritime and Corporate Administrators did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Rani Amir, one of the ministry’s lead investigators into the incident, said “strong circumstantial evidence” pointed to the Emerald's involvement, and that it was believed to be involved in smuggling oil to Syria in breach of international sanctions.