DUBAI: A missile fired by Yemen’s Al Houthi militia slammed into a Norwegian-flagged tanker in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen near a key maritime chokepoint, the rebels and authorities said Tuesday.
The assault on the oil and chemical tanker Strinda expands a campaign by the Iranian-backed militia targeting ships close to the Bab Al Mandab Strait into apparently now striking those that have no clear ties to Israel.
That potentially imperils cargo and energy shipments coming through the Suez Canal and further widens the international impact of the Israel-Hamas war now raging in the Gaza Strip.
The Bab Al Mandab Strait is only 29 km (18 miles) wide at its narrowest point, limiting traffic to two channels for inbound and outbound shipments, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Nearly 10 per cent of all oil traded at sea passes through it.
In November, Al Houthis seized a vehicle transport ship linked to Israel in the Red Sea off Yemen. The rebels still hold the vessel near the port city of Hodeida. Separately, a container ship owned by an Israeli billionaire came under attack by a suspected Iranian drone in the Indian Ocean.
A separate, tentative ceasefire between Al Houthis and a Saudi-led coalition fighting on behalf of Yemen’s exiled government has held for months despite that country’s long war.
That’s raised concerns that any wider conflict in the sea — or a potential reprisal strike from Western forces — could reignite those tensions in the Arab world’s poorest nation.
In 2016, the US launched Tomahawk cruise missiles that destroyed three coastal radar sites in AL Houthi-controlled territory to retaliate for missiles being fired at US Navy ships at the time.
Al Houthi military spokesperson Brig. Gen. Yahya Saree issued a video statement saying the rebels only fired on the vessel when it “rejected all warning calls.”
The US military’s Central Command issued a statement saying an anti-ship cruise missile “launched from a [Al] Houthi-controlled area of Yemen” hit the Strinda.
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- Yemen’s Al Houthi militia takes hostage 25 crew members of Israel-linked ship
“There were no US ships in the vicinity at the time of the attack, but the USS Mason responded — and is currently rendering assistance,” Central Command said. The Mason is an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer that has been involved in several of the recent incidents off Yemen.
The private intelligence firms Ambrey and Dryad Global had earlier confirmed the attack happened near the crucial Bab Al Mandab Strait separating East Africa from the Arabian Peninsula.
Headed to safe port
Geir Belsnes, the CEO of the Strinda’s operator, J. Ludwig Mowinckels Rederi, also confirmed the attack took place.
The tanker is now headed for a safe port, the ship’s Norwegian owner, Mowinckel Chemical Tankers, told Reuters. The STRINDA tanker’s crew of 22 from India are all unhurt, Mowinckel Chair Geir Belsnes said.
The Strinda was coming from Malaysia and was bound for the Suez Canal and then on to Italy with a cargo of palm oil, Belsnes said. Saree alleged without offering any evidence that the ship was bound for Israel.
The British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which provides warnings to sailors in the Middle East, earlier reported a fire aboard an unidentified vessel off Mokha, Yemen, with all the crew aboard being safe. The coordinates of that fire correspond to the last known location of the Strinda based off satellite tracking data analysed by The Associated Press.
Al Houthis have carried out a series of attacks on vessels in the Red Sea and also launched drones and missiles targeting Israel. In recent days, they have threatened to attack any vessel they believe is either going to or coming from Israel, though there was no immediate apparent link between the Strinda and Israel.
Israel’s national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, said over the weekend that Israel has called on its Western allies to address the threats from Yemen and would give them “some time” to organise a response. But he said if the threats persist, “we will act to remove this blockade.”
Analysts suggest Al Houthis hope to shore up waning popular support after years of civil war in Yemen between it and Saudi-backed forces.
France and the United States have stopped short of saying their ships were targeted in rebel attacks, but have said Al Houthi drones have headed toward their ships and were shot down in self-defence. Washington so far has declined to directly respond to the attacks, as has Israel, whose military continues to describe the ships as not having links to their country.