Yemen Houthi rebels claim attacks on two Red Sea cargo ships

Yemeni coastguard members loyal to the internationally-recognised government ride in a patrol boat in the Red Sea off of the government-held town of Mokha in the western Taiz province, close to the strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait, on December 12, 2023.
Image caption,Yemen’s coastguard – which backs the government – has been patrolling waters near the Bab El Mandeb strait

Two cargo ships in the Red Sea have been attacked by missiles fired from territory in Yemen, the US says.

One was hit with a drone and another by missiles, both launched from a part of Yemen controlled by the Houthis – a rebel movement backed by Iran.

The Houthis did not confirm the drone strike, but said they did fire missiles at the second boat – and a third one.

It is the latest attack on foreign ships in the area since the start of the Israel-Hamas war.

The Houthis – who seized power nine years ago – have declared their support for Hamas and say they are targeting ships travelling to Israel.

The vessels came under attack in the Bab El Mandab – a narrow strait of water that is vital for global trade.

Referring to the alleged drone attack, a US defence official told AFP news agency on Friday: “We are aware that something launched from a Houthi-controlled region of Yemen struck this vessel which was damaged, and there was a report of a fire.”

That container ship, called the Al Jasrah, is owned by German transport company Hapag-Lloyd, and flagged to Liberia in West Africa.

A Hapag-Lloyd spokesman told AFP that the ship was on its way to Singapore from the Greek port of Piraeus. There were no casualties and the ship is now continuing towards its destination, he added.

Second ship attacked

The Houthis gave no acknowledgement of a hit on the Al Jasrah, but said they had targeted the MSC Palatium and MSC Alanya with missiles.

Giving their own account of a missile strike on a vessel – which they did not name – a US defence official said the hit caused a fire and a US Navy destroyer was on its way to put it out.

The US is under pressure from Israel to do something about these attacks but Washington is reluctant to target the Houthi missile sites for fear of widening the Israel-Hamas conflict and triggering retaliation by Iran.

Instead, it is more likely there would be a multinational naval coalition forming to protect shipping and shoot down any incoming missiles and drones.

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan – who is on a trip to the Middle East – said the Houthis were a “material threat” to shipping and commerce in the region.

He said Iran bore ultimate responsibility for the attacks, adding: “While the Houthis are pulling the trigger, so to speak, they’re being handed the gun by Iran.

“Iran has a responsibility to take steps themselves to cease these attacks, because these attacks, as I said before, are a fundamental threat to international law and international peace and security.”

More incidents were also reported in the region on Friday – including a separate report elsewhere that another ship had been hijacked.

The UK’s maritime trade operations agency said it had received a report that a crew of a ship further east in the Arabian Sea was no longer in control of a vessel, and it was heading towards Somalia.

“At present all crew are reported as safe” the UKMTO said.

The latest attacks follow several earlier ones in the southern Red Sea, pushing up insurance premiums and potentially making some ships go all the way round Cape of Good Hope in South Africa to avoid the Red Sea.

The Houthis – who are fighting Yemen’s Saudi-backed government – have declared themselves part of an “axis of resistance” of Iran-affiliated groups opposing Israel, the US, and the wider West.

They have already attacked several commercial ships this month, prompting a US destroyer to intervene, and in November they successfully hijacked a cargo ship.

US, French and British warships have been patrolling the Red Sea area and have shot several missiles out of the sky.

The Bab El Mandeb Strait is a 20-mile wide channel that separates Eritrea and Djibouti on the African side from Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula.

About 17,000 ships and 10% of global trade pass through it every year. Any ship passing through the Suez Canal to or from the Indian Ocean has to come this way.

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