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Missiles from rebel-held Yemen miss a ship loaded with jet fuel near the key Bab el-Mandeb Strait

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Missiles from rebel-held Yemen miss a ship loaded with jet fuel near the key Bab el-Mandeb Strait
AP
JON GAMBRELL
December 12, 2023

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Two missiles fired from territory held by Yemen's Houthi rebels missed a commercial tanker loaded with Indian-manufactured jet fuel near the key Bab el-Mandeb Strait on Wednesday, two U.S. officials said. It is the first time they target an energy shipment heading to the Suez Canal.

An American warship, the USS Mason, also shot down a suspected Houthi drone flying in its direction during the incident, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters. No one was hurt in the attack, the officials said.

The assault on the tanker Ardmore Encounter further escalates a campaign by the Iranian-backed rebels targeting ships close to the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, and also widens the international impact of the Israel-Hamas war raging in the Gaza Strip.

The Marshall Islands-flagged tanker was traveling north toward the Suez Canal in the Red Sea, satellite tracking data analyzed by The Associated Press showed. The vessel was on its way from Mangalore, India, and had an armed security crew aboard it, according to data transmitted by the ship. Those guards apparently opened fire to drive off skiffs loaded with men trying to board the vessel, the private intelligence firm Ambrey said.

Ardmore Shipping Corp., which owns and operates the ship, issued a statement to the AP acknowledging the attack.

“No one boarded the vessel and all crew members are safe and accounted for,” the statement said. “The vessel remains fully operational with no loss of cargo or damage on board.”

It added: “Ardmore is in close contact with the relevant authorities and military assistance is now in the area providing support as required.”

The ship was carrying a load of jet fuel from Shell MRPL Aviation Fuels & Services Ltd., a joint operation of the oil giant and India's national oil company. The fuel was heading to either Rotterdam in the Netherlands or Gavle, Sweden, Ardmore Shipping said. Shell declined to comment.

Ardmore Shipping traded slightly up early Wednesday on the New York Stock Exchange to $13.64 a share.

The Houthis did not immediately acknowledge the attack.

The British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which provides warnings to sailors in the Middle East, earlier reported a separate incident off the coast of Oman. It said a vessel had been followed by smaller boats carrying machine guns and men in gray uniforms before escaping unharmed.

On Monday night, a missile also fired by Yemen’s Houthi rebels slammed into a Norwegian-flagged tanker in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen near the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.

The Houthis have carried out a series of attacks on vessels in the Red Sea and 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. There was no immediate link found between the Ardmore Encounter and Israel.

Analysts suggest the Houthis hope to shore up waning popular support after years of civil war in Yemen between the rebels and Saudi-backed forces.

France and the United States have stopped short of saying their ships were targeted in rebel attacks, but have said Houthi drones targeting their ships and were shot down in self-defense. Washington so far has declined to directly respond to the attacks, as has Israel, whose military continues to insist the ships do not have links to their country.

Global shipping has increasingly been targeted as the Israel-Hamas war threatens to become a wider regional conflict — even during a brief pause in fighting during which Hamas exchanged hostages for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. The collapse of the truce and the resumption of a punishing Israeli ground offensive and airstrikes on Gaza have raised the risk of more sea attacks.

The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is only 29 kilometers (18 miles) wide at its narrowest point, limiting traffic to two channels for inbound and outbound shipments, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Nearly 10% of all oil traded at sea passes through it. An estimated $1 trillion in goods pass through the strait annually.

In November, 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 cease-fire between the 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 U.S. launched Tomahawk cruise missiles that destroyed three coastal radar sites in Houthi-controlled territory to retaliate for missiles being fired at U.S. Navy ships at the time.

___

Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.

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