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Goals not guns: How a girls football team in India’s Manipur beats violence




Andro, India – Smart in her neon blue jacket and bright red sneakers, Hemarani slips out of the large thatched-roof mud hut and stands squinting up at the rising sun. The sky is streaked pink over the Nongmaiching Ching hills, and the wide open field before her is still swimming in fog. Cows are grazing in the green pastures, and alongside, a group of girls in their football kit is warming up.

This is Andro, a village 26km (16 miles) southeast of Imphal, the capital of India’s northeastern state of Manipur. The hut Hemarani, 30, has just emerged from is the official clubhouse of Andro’s girls football club – AMMA FC – and she is one of the trainers.

This practice session in January is the last one for the girls before an official rest period, which lasts until April. Almost all 30 of the club’s players – aged five to 18 – have turned up. Many in the team have been preparing for their school leaving examinations, and this training session offers one last merry diversion from their books.

Quickly, the girls pair up and pick up the pace through rounds of kicks, passes, headers and speed drills. The daily, two-hour practice sessions always end with a game, Hemarani says. “The point is to play everyday.”

She gives some of the girls a few pointers about technique, divides up the teams and then lets the senior players like Chingakham Anjali Devi and Phanjoubam Ameba Devi, both of whom are currently players on Imphal’s U-17 team, take over. Twelve of AMMA FC’s present and former players currently play nationally, five internationally.

The pleasant thump of the ball against boots, calls of “pass,” “open, open” and laughter echo across the field. The younger girls shout out to their favourite players and clap from the sidelines. Hemarani lets the game extend a little over the 90-minute mark and then blows the whistle.

On a normal day, the girls take their time stretching and packing up after the game, chatting about school, movies, boys. But nothing about Manipur is normal these days. Still panting from the game, the girls leave in groups, and Hemarani instructs them to head straight home.

The team bus [Courtesy of Meena Longjam]

Against a dark background

Just hours before, in a makeshift shack not far from the AMMA FC grounds, a group of women had similarly packed up and headed home. Young and old, they had been sitting awake through the night, warmed by blankets, shawls and a fire, keeping watch over the village. For months now, they have been taking turns guarding the 10,000-strong community in Andro from potential attacks through the night.

Violence broke out in Manipur in May between the majority Hindu Meiteis and the mostly Christian Kuki-Zo people. It was triggered by plans to recognise the Meiteis as a Scheduled Tribe – a type of affirmative action that uses quotas to grant minorities  government jobs and college admissions.

The land of the hill tribes of Manipur – the Kukis, Nagas, Mizos – is protected by constitutional provisions. But similar special status for the Meiteis, who make up 60 percent of the state’s population and dominate its politics, could open up the hills too for this majority community, which is currently predominantly in the plains. Violence has raged ever since.

Among the women in the shack, tightly bound in her phanek skirt and shawl, is 65-year-old Laibi Phanjoubam, who talks about how the women pass the time. “We talk about our day, about our plans for the next day, about chores and children,” she says. “But mostly we talk about what is happening in the state, the nearby villages. It lessens our worries a bit.”

Small and shy, Laibi was the first woman from Andro to graduate from college. For the past three decades, she has been running AMMA FC, which was recognised by the All Manipur Football Association in 1999. Her club’s story was recently brought to the screen in filmmaker Meena Longjam’s documentary Andro Dreams.

The hourlong film premiered at the International Film Festival of India. It follows the club’s ups and downs, the grit of its young players, the pressure they face to get married, have children and the experiences of life in a place far removed from India’s bustling urban landscapes, where spirits and shamans still hold sway.

Laibi Phanjoubam founded the women’s cooperative AMMA in the 1990s. Her girls football team, AMMA FC, was recognised by the All Manipur Football Association in 1999 [Courtesy of Meena Longjam]

Laibi is the film’s indisputable star. We see her quietly going about her day, farming, cooking, drinking tea, cultivating silkworms and accompanying the players to their matches.

“After finishing my studies, I got involved with various kinds of social work before starting the football club,” she says in the film.

“At one time, friends and family started asking me to get married,” she adds, laughing. “‘But will I have the freedom to go about my life if I were married?’ I asked in return.” She remains steadfastly single.

AMMA FC only trains girls from Andro. “Some girls come on their own. Others are brought by their parents,” Hemarani says. “Training happens daily, even when we are not preparing for matches. Typically, we start at 5:30 in the morning.”

Players trained by AMMA FC (part of the Andro Mahila Morcha Association, or AMMA, the local women’s enterprise that Laibi founded in the 1990s) bring home big and small wins regularly.

In December, goalkeeper Sharubam Anika Devi was invited to attend a training camp in the western coastal state of Goa. In January, she joined India’s U-19 squad in Dhaka, Bangladesh, for the South Asian Football Federation’s U-19 championship.

In late January, Thingbaibam Shakhenbi Devi brought home a gold trophy playing for Manipur’s U-18 women’s football team at the 2023 Khelo India Youth Games in Chennai. This month, former AMMA player Phanjoubam Nirmala Devi is representing the Tamil Nadu-based Sethu FC in the Indian Women’s League.

Other former players, such as Salam Rinaroy Devi and Bina Devi, are also well regarded members of India’s women’s football circuit.

Many of the girls on the team attend the local TAM Mission High School in Andro and the nearby Azad Higher Secondary School in Yairipok. Besides school work and football, they have duties at home – cooking, cleaning, farming. Andro is an agrarian village inhabited by the Lois, a Dalit community on the lower rungs of the Meitei hierarchy.

Traditionally, their primary source of income has been brewing rice beer. Almost all families in the village still make and trade in homemade alcohol. This is what Andro has been known for – until its girls decided to carve out a new identity for the village.

A meeting of the AMMA committee to organise a chit fund for the football club [Courtesy of Meena Longjam]

‘All we needed was a ball’

In August, just as Longjam’s film was declared best documentary at the Jagran Film Festival in Mumbai, Manipur was teetering on the brink of civil war.

By September, clashes between the Meiteis and Kukis had killed more than 150 people and displaced nearly 60,000. By January, those numbers had swelled to 200 and 70,000.

Hundreds of houses, places of worship and vehicles have been vandalised. Civil society activists blame Manipur’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government for the violence. They accuse it of deliberately fanning the already tense relationship between the Meiteis and Kukis for political gain. The BJP, which also heads the national government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, rejects these allegations – even in the face of criticism from some of its own local legislators.

As a multiethnic society, Manipur has seen its share of clashes between communities.

The uncomfortable inclusion of the area in independent India left Manipur steeped in one of the country’s oldest secessionist movements.

One of its outcomes, the Naga-Kuki wars of the 1990s, led to widespread displacement and the loss of hundreds of lives and villages. Armed rebel groups gained strength. Soon their tyranny – marked by illegal taxation, extortion and the drug trade – became a part of the daily lives of Manipuris. As did the ferocity of the government forces’ response.

Laibi and Hemarani with the team bus in 2021 [Courtesy of Meena Longjam]

Back in the 1990s, Laibi says, she hoped that football could be a healthy distraction from all of this for the girls of Andro. She never played the game herself but knew bringing youngsters onto the field would not prove tough in this sports-obsessed state.

“There were already many clubs for boys,” she says. “We thought a club for girls would give them confidence.” Starting a football club was economical, she adds. “All we needed was a ball.”

Aside from playing the beautiful game, she meant for the club to also teach the girls discipline and keep them in school, “away from drugs and the armed rebellion”.

The state had already been declared a “disturbed area” a decade before when the Indian government imposed the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). This law grants soldiers immunity for their actions – even if civilians are killed.

In 2000, 28-year-old Manipuri activist Irom Chanu Sharmila began a 16-year-long hunger strike demanding the repeal of the AFSPA.

Then in 2004, 32-year-old Thangjam Manorama was dragged out of her home, raped, tortured and killed, allegedly by soldiers of the Assam Rifles, a paramilitary force responsible for maintaining law and order in the northeast of India. She was suspected of being a “militant”, they said later, but no official complaint had been filed against her. Because of the AFSPA, no soldier was ever charged or prosecuted, and the Assam Rifles have never accepted responsibility.

Manorama’s bullet-riddled body, found 2km (1.2 miles) from a police station, proved a boiling point. A dozen women stripped naked outside the Imphal army camp to protest. They held a banner that read, “Indian Army Rape Us.” Images of their protest shocked the nation and made headlines globally.

Repeal ASPA india protest Manipur - Reuters
Protesters in 2017 in Manipur demand the repeal of the AFSPA, which grants Indian armed forces immunity from prosecution even if they kill civilians [File: Reuters]

In part, it is the deep-rooted distrust of the state that has compelled women like Laibi to now stand guard over their villages across Manipur every night despite the presence of security forces. But what could a group of unarmed women do if they did have to fend off armed mobs?

“No one is going to attack a group of women in Manipur,” Laibi says. “Here, when a group of women stands in your way, you stop and listen. That is the tradition.”

Despite her assurances, sexual violence has emerged as a recurrent weapon of conflict in this region. In July, a video of two naked Kuki women being groped and paraded by a mob went viral, even with the internet largely blocked due to a statewide shutdown implemented since May.

Outrage over the assault forced Modi to break his silence and make his first public comments about the situation in Manipur, 79 days after the most recent violence broke out.

“The video showing atrocity against women in Manipur is most shameful,” he said. “I’m pained and angered about the incident, and I assure people of the country that the guilty will not be spared and subjected to severest punishment.” But the video was the only aspect of the eight months of violence that Modi has publicly addressed.

Manipur protest
After the release of a video showing a mob parading two women naked and assaulting them, Kuki protesters demonstrate in New Delhi on July, 22, 2023 [File: Altaf Qadri/AP]

In August, a no-confidence motion was tabled against his government by an alliance of opposition parties. They demanded Modi address the bloodshed in Manipur and remove the state government. In a two-hour speech, Modi dismissed the move as an attempt to “defame India”.

The internet restrictions left Andro cut off and without news of what was happening in the rest of the state. But it also got the AMMA FC players off their phones, much to Laibi’s relief.

Life did not return to normal even after communications were restored in December, though. “There is fear all around, and everyone is constantly vigilant,” Laibi says.

Still, being located in Imphal East away from the hotspots in the west where much of the violence has unfolded, Andro is safer than many other places in Manipur at the moment, she adds.

While anxiety about the situation has kept several players away from the field, training at AMMA FC never stopped. “The rest of the country isn’t going to take a pause because of what is happening in Manipur,” Hemarani says. “Our players still aspire to participate in the national level competitions, and those are still on.”

This year, AMMA FC beat Eastern Sporting Union (ESU), one of the oldest women’s football clubs in Manipur, to win the seven-a-side U-17 Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao tournament, a grassroots football initiative established by the Indian government. AMMA’s Phanjoubam Nirmala Devi was named best player, and Chingakham Geeta Devi was rewarded as best goalkeeper.

The match was decided by a tense penalty shootout, Hemarani says. “ESU always presents a strong front, and we had almost given up when we didn’t score.” It was AMMA’s star players, Chingakham Bimolbala, Phanjoubam Nirmala, Khanumayam Anita and Khanumayam Nirmala, who finally secured the win by not missing a single penalty shot. AMMA won 4-3 in the penalties.

Laibi with a football trophy won by AMMA FC in August [Courtesy of Meena Longjam]

Usually, the girls stay together at the AMMA FC clubhouse during tournaments. Built on an abandoned graveyard of the Kharam tribe, one of the oldest ethnic tribal groups in Manipur, it is a stone’s throw from Laibi’s house.

None of the players can afford the costs associated with commitment to a sport, so the club provides everything – jerseys, shoes, training equipment. “If we ask them to pay, they will drop out,” Laibi says. Wins like the Beti Bachao championship keep the players’ spirits up, she says, giving them the confidence to appear for competitions and take part in matches against more competitive clubs and players with far better resources.

For a while, AMMA FC received support from Tata Trusts, an Indian social welfare and philanthropic organisation. Now, unlike some other football clubs in Manipur, it does not receive funding from the state or independent donors at all. “AMMA is a hyperlocal enterprise run by village women in their 60s,” Longjam explains. “They are organised and resourceful but not savvy enough to negotiate government grants or sponsors.”

So the club runs on the money the Mahila committee raises from selling handloom woven textiles that members make – scarves, stoles, phaneks, blankets. Laibi sells them from a small shop attached to her house. She also dispatches woven wares to be sold in other parts of Manipur. Occasionally, AMMA organises “chit funds” – a money pooling system – to raise funds for the football club.

Textiles that will be sold to support the girls football club [Meena Longjam]

Besides football, AMMA also trains the girls in “soft skills”, including using computers. As a result, Laibi says proudly, several former players have gone on to land government jobs. Among those who have continued to play, some have joined professional football clubs in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

Such milestones will, however, become harder to achieve the longer the unrest goes on in Manipur. The violence will restrict the players’ mobility and limit how much they can travel to tournaments. Then there is the very real risk to the players’ personal safety and the effect of the turbulence on their mental wellbeing.

It is in light of this that the All India Football Federation has been delaying the resumption of national-level club football in Manipur, which has long been one of India’s sporting powerhouses.

Last year, 43 athletes from the state represented India at the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China. The Indian women’s football team has always been reliant on the state. Some of the biggest names in women’s football in the country have emerged from Manipur. Even the U-17 team at the recently concluded World Cup had seven players from Manipur while the current national team has four, including captain Ashalata Devi.

Laibi at her loom [Courtesy of Meena Longjam]

Laibi’s favourite players – the legendary Oinam Bembem Devi, captain of the Indian women’s team for 21 years, and Bala Devi, India’s first female football player to be signed by an international club – also emerged from small clubs in Manipur.

One day, she hopes, AMMA FC’s players will also attain the same level of success. The bio on AMMA FC’s seldom-used Facebook page announces its ambitious plans to “take India to the FIFA World Cup 2027”.

Of all players, however, Laibi draws special inspiration from Lionel Messi. “Messi maintains his peace,” she says. This is her only pointer to the players in her club: “Play peacefully. Be respectful.”

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Elephant in the room: Why Botswana, Namibia want fewer of the gentle giants





They might be an awesome sight to see from a safe distance on safari as they lumber around with their big, lopping ears and long trunks, but for those who live side by side with elephants, these mammals can quickly become a menace.

Elephants’ numbers in African countries have dwindled hugely in the past. Conservation efforts since the 1980s, however, have seen populations recover somewhat. In Southern African countries, where about half of the African elephant population resides, their higher numbers mean they are starting to come into conflict with humans.

As a result, some of these countries have tried to reduce their elephant numbers. In Botswana, which has the largest number of elephants in the world, President Mokgweetsi Masisi has sought to push controversial policies, like the promotion of hunting by rich tourists. Last month, he lashed out at the German government for considering a ban on the import of elephant parts, threatening to send Berlin 20,000 of its jumbos.

The diplomatic spat made catchy headlines. But it belied the serious challenges facing elephants, rural communities and conservationists working to find solutions.

Two men lift huge elephant tusks in Kruger national Park, South Africa
Officials carry a large elephant tusk at Skukuza in the Kruger National Park, South Africa, in 2001 [File: Denis Farrell/AP]

How have elephant numbers changed in the past?

Following long periods of overhunting and poaching for their meat and expensive ivory tusks, elephant numbers collapsed dramatically across Africa between the 1970s and 80s. About 100,000 elephants were killed each year during that time, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). While an estimated three to five million elephants roamed the continent around 1930, the number had fallen to 1.3 million in 1979, the WWF says. According to researchers who have looked back as far as the 1500s, elephant populations in Africa have shrunk by some 98 percent.

Numbers continued to fall from 1979 until conservation practices – including crucial bans on sales of elephant parts and trophy hunting – halted the decline. Total elephant numbers in Africa currently stand at about 415,000, according to WWF estimates.

This is still low compared with historical numbers. In particular, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the African bush elephant as endangered and the African forest elephant as critically endangered, meaning they still face the threat of extinction.

The African bush elephant is a bigger animal inhabiting the savannah grasslands of Southern and Eastern Africa, making up 70 percent of the total population on the continent. Its cousin – the African forest elephant – is native to Western and Central Africa and is recognisable by its smaller, rounded ears and short, pointed tusks.

Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe together account for more than half of the African bush elephant population. Botswana alone is home to about 130,000 bush elephants – about half of the region’s numbers. It is a big country with a small population of two million people, comparable in size to France, which has a population of 67 million. For every 15 people in Botswana, there is about one elephant.

Zimbabwe has the second-largest bush elephant population at about 100,000.

Elephants roam in the Hwange Game Reserve, Zimbabwe
Elephants roam in the Hwange Game Reserve in Zimbabwe, August 6, 2015 [File: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP]

Why have rising numbers of elephants become a challenge?

The largest living land animals’ feeding habits can dramatically alter ecosystems during their roughly 60 years of life. They have few natural predators to manage their numbers besides humans and, with people out of the way, elephants can populate quickly, says researcher Lucy King from the non-profit organisation, Save the Elephants.

“When left alone, they breed pretty well [and] their numbers can go up quite steadily over time because their survival rate is pretty good,” King says.

During the same time that elephant numbers have steadied, human population growth has doubled across Africa. In Southern and Eastern Africa, the population grew from 312 million in 1994 to 633 million in 2021 according to the United Nations Population Fund. That growth has seen humans occupy more land area and increasingly encroach on wildlife habitats. Settlements and farms have also cut roaming wildlife off from water or food sources.

As a result, humans and elephants are coming into more frequent contact and are clashing over the same resources. Foraging herbivores often roam onto farms, rip open thatch roofs on huts in search of food or cause damage to water pipes and other infrastructure. This has prompted angry locals to retaliate and attack them. Those interactions can be fatal for both man and beast.

Climate change has also caused more elephants to wander further than they once would have – and to more unpredictable places – to seek scarce food and water.

Zimbabwe is a peak conflict site, but human-elephant clashes are increasingly occurring across the region, King says.

Countries like Zimbabwe and Botswana blame elephant overpopulation and argue that reducing their numbers would reduce these clashes. However, some experts reject this suggestion, pointing out that there used to be many more elephants in Africa.

How have governments tried to tackle the issue?

South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana have all tried to reduce the number of elephants in their territory at certain points, but nearly all their methods have been met with criticism or outright condemnation from animal welfare organisations.

One practice is culling – the deliberate targeting and killing of several animals, usually whole families, together.

This practice was popular around the 1980s and 90s. In South Africa’s Kruger Park, a culling campaign saw about 14,000 elephants killed between 1967 and 1995. However, the practice was outlawed after African countries faced a global backlash, such as widespread calls for tourists to boycott countries culling elephants.

However, in 2008, South Africa defied the global outcry and lifted its culling ban. In 2021, Zimbabwe – which had killed about 50,000 elephants between 1967 and 1988 – said it was considering bringing back the practice.

Conservationists such as King argue that culling is particularly cruel for elephants, who are emotionally intelligent and can experience trauma. Besides, the method is not effective and will “hardly scratch the surface”, she says.

Governments have also attempted to simply sell off part of their herds, although animal welfare groups say elephants could be shipped to zoos and used for human entertainment.

In 2021, Namibia auctioned 170 elephants but sold only a third – at 5.9 million Namibian dollars ($400,000). There was so much bad press and criticism of the sale that buyers were discouraged, officials said.

Another way to control numbers is by allowing trophy hunting, whereby countries license adventure seekers – usually tourists from the United States and other Western countries – to kill a limited number of animals in specific, allocated areas for their horns, skins and tusks. Often, these tourists target male elephants – or bulls – for their bigger tusks.

Government officials in Southern Africa – and hunters themselves – argue that hunting helps manage the elephant population naturally and provides revenue for local communities. That in turn incentivises local communities to stop illegal poaching and to ensure that elephant numbers remain steady — and never drop below a sustainable level. Hunting licences can cost as much as $10,000, depending on the animal being hunted.

African governments are often angered by the idea of Western countries telling them the practice is unethical – hence the threat by Botswana to ship 20,000 elephants to Germany. Botswana’s President Masisi has been a particular advocate for the return of hunting licences. In 2019, after he took office, Botswana lifted a five-year ban on elephant hunting.

What are the arguments against hunting?

Some conservationists dismiss this anger from African governments.

“I just think it’s extremely shortsighted. I think it’s a convenient smokescreen behind which to hide and justify trophy hunting which is big business,” says Ross Harvey, a wildlife economist with the non-profit organisation Good Governance Africa. Harvey points out that much of the funds from trophy hunting – first introduced in colonial Kenya – go to wealthy businessmen who own trophy hunting companies, rather than into conservation efforts.

“How much of it actually ends up going to conservation is highly questionable, certainly not enough to conserve the landscape, and how much of it accrues to poor community members is also extremely unclear,” he adds. “But now that elephant is gone, now you live with the negative effects of having taken out all the bulls – typically in their reproductive peak.”

Older males often help guide younger bulls, teaching them where to find food and water, or how to behave. When they are killed, younger males can become aggressive, researchers have found.

“My prediction is that you’re going to see an increase in human and elephant conflict because when you take out all the bulls that are responsible for disciplining the herd, then crop raiding is going to increase, not decrease,” says Harvey.

So, what is the solution?

Harvey says while elephant numbers may have increased since the 1990s, the real problem is not one of “overpopulation” but rather of humans cutting off connecting land strips or corridors which elephants – and all wildlife – use to migrate in search of food and habitat. Freeing up those spaces, he argues, will reduce human-elephant interactions.

“If you shoot them, you just exacerbate the problem,” he says.

“There’s only two solutions really,” says King. “One, to have breathing space. We keep throwing up fences everywhere and stopping [elephants], so they get squeezed into areas where they can then deplete the vegetation incredibly fast. The only solution is to release the valves and make sure the fences come down. That does not mean that elephants should be everywhere … but you can’t fence elephants in.”

In northern Botswana, one initiative called the “Eco-Exist Project” worked with locals to identify and demarcate more than 60 elephant corridors across the sprawling Okavango Delta. The team then worked with communities to replan village layouts, so that farms, homes and other infrastructure would be positioned away from these “elephant highways”.

It is not yet clear how much this project has reduced human-elephant conflict, but some 65,000 hectares (160,600 acres) of farmland belonging to 500 farmers, have been protected so far. Farmers have also clustered to share farm spaces which they have ringed with fences or crops such as chilli – which elephants dislike and therefore avoid.

Another solution, King says, is to teach people how to live more harmoniously with the animals. Her research on natural ways to fend off elephants from settlements and farms in southern Kenya has yielded some results.

King found that when she played sound recordings of swarming bees, elephants would disperse in a hurry. She then started to experiment with building beehive fences around several farmsteads. This is a rudimentary method which is suitable for rural communities – farmers need only poles to mount boxes housing the hives. Women then harvest the honey and sell it for some side income. The method is now being employed in 17 African countries and some areas in Asia.

“We’re really proud about it … and it’s completely open source,” King says. “We let people have the manuals, develop their own bio fence project, and run with it. And the interesting thing is it’s really working everywhere.”

However, the method works for small land areas only. It is also threatened by drought – which is not conducive for bees.

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Photos: Sikhs celebrate harvest festival of Baisakhi, marking new year





Baisakhi is an ancient festival symbolising the new harvest season and the beginning of the solar new year.

In gurdwaras, or Sikh temples, people participate in congregational singing, eat communal meals and reflect on the tenets of their faith that revolve around “seva,” or serving fellow human beings and seeking to build a just society while living a simple life.

The Sikh religion, with its line of 10 gurus, is traced back to the time of Guru Nanak, the first guru. He was born in a village in present-day Pakistan in the northern state of Punjab in 1469.

He rejected the prevalent unequal caste system, which determined and fixed the status of people by birth. Instead, he looked upon humanity as one and encouraged his followers to work hard and perform acts of charity.

The spirit of Baisakhi is reminiscent of the ideals of the gurus.

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Iran’s IRGC seizes ‘Israeli-linked’ ship near Strait of Hormuz





Tehran, Iran – Iranian armed forces have seized a container ship near the Strait of Hormuz amid rising tensions across the region after a deadly Israeli attack on Iran’s consulate in Syria.

The ship was commandeered by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the elite force that lost seven members, including two generals, in the Syria strike, Iranian state media reported on Saturday.

“The ship has now been guided towards the territorial waters of our country,” state-run IRNA reported.

The vessel was identified as the Portugal-flagged MSC Aries, which reportedly departed from a port in the United Arab Emirates en route to India. It is associated with the London-based Zodiac Maritime, a part of the Zodiac Group run by Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer and his family.

Footage from the deck of the vessel obtained by The Associated Press news agency on Saturday showed soldiers rappelling down from a helicopter.

‌The helicopter appeared to be a Soviet-designed Mil Mi-17, which is operated by the naval forces of the IRGC.

Zodiac Maritime said in a statement that MSC, an Italian-Swiss shipping group, was responsible for all vessel activities.

MSC confirmed there were 25 crew members on board the ship, adding in a statement that it is “working closely with the relevant authorities to ensure their wellbeing, and safe return of the vessel”.

The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) had said a vessel was seized by “regional authorities” 50 nautical miles (92km) northeast of the UAE’s Fujairah in a waterway vital to world trade.

Another Israeli-linked container ship was attacked and damaged by a drone in the Indian Ocean in late November, which the United States blamed on Iran.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said in a post on X that the move by Iran was “a pirate operation in violation of international law”.

He called on the European Union and “the free world to immediately declare” the IRGC a “terrorist organization and to sanction Iran now”.

White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said the ship’s crew comprised of Indian, Filipino, Pakistani, Russian and Estonian nationals, and pushed back against the vessel’s seizure.

“We call on Iran to release the vessel and its international crew immediately,” she said. “Seizing a civilian vessel without provocation is a blatant violation of international law, and an act of piracy by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.”

Soaring regional tensions

The US military is moving more military assets to the Middle East as it anticipates an Iranian response to the Israeli attack on the consulate in Syria.

A US defence official told Al Jazeera that the move is mainly aimed at better protecting US troops in the region, but also to ramp up regional deterrence.

US media confirmed the move but the Pentagon has not officially said which assets it is moving to the region.

The Wall Street Journal quoted unnamed US officials as saying on Friday that it includes repositioning two destroyers, with one of the warships already in the region and another redirected there.

On Saturday, US President Joe Biden said he was cutting short his weekend stay in Delaware to return to the White House early to meet with his national security team and monitor the security situation ahead of a feared Iranian attack on Israel.

On Friday, Biden said he expected an Iranian retaliation to come “sooner than later” and that Washington will continue to defend Israel.

“Don’t,” he said when asked by reporters if he had a message for Iran.

Since the start of the war on Gaza after the Hamas-led October 7 attacks in Israel, the US has sent thousands of bombs and ammunition to its ally Israel despite growing international criticism, along with moving warships and troops to the region.

John Kirby, the White House’s national security spokesman, said on Friday that Iran’s threats to retaliate against Israel remain “real” and viable”.

General Erik Kurilla, the head of US Central Command in the region, arrived in Israel on Friday to discuss a potential Iranian attack and met with top officials, including Israeli military chief of staff Herzi Halevi.

Israeli military spokesperson Daniel Hagari said that “Iran funds, trains, and arms terror proxies across the Middle East and beyond”, adding that the Islamic republic doesn’t just threaten the people of Israel, Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria”, but “fuels the war in Ukraine and beyond”.

He said that Israel was on “high alert” and was “prepared to respond” to what he called “any Iranian aggression”.

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