DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A missile fired by Yemen's Houthi rebels 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 rebels targeting ships close to the Bab el-Mandeb 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.
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 U.S. military's Central Command said an anti-ship cruise missile “launched from a Houthi-controlled area of Yemen” hit the Strinda.
“There were no U.S. 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.
France’s Armies Ministry separately said its frigate Languedoc shot down a drone that was “threatening” the Strinda during the attack near the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which separates East Africa from the Arabian Peninsula and sees some $1 trillion in goods pass through it annually.
The French frigate “then positioned itself to protect the affected vessel, preventing an attempt to hijack the ship,” the French military said.
Geir Belsnes, the CEO of the Strinda's operator, J. Ludwig Mowinckels Rederi, also confirmed the attack took place.
“All crew members are unhurt and safe,” Belsnes said. “The vessel is now proceeding to a safe port.”
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 immediately for Israel. The website for the port of Ashdod in Israel listed the Strinda as potentially making a call there on Jan. 4.
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 analyzed by The Associated Press.
The 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.
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 organize a response. But he said if the threats persist, “we will act to remove this blockade.”
Analysts suggest the 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 Houthi drones have headed toward 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 latest missile attack underscores the Houthis’ commitment to expanded targeting, and the Houthis will almost certainly continue attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea over the coming days and weeks,” the risk intelligence firm RANE warned in an analysis. “These attacks will likely cause shipping companies to reroute traffic, which will add to fuel costs and create supply chain delays.”
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.
Major Danish shipper Maersk said Tuesday it had “implemented additional security measures for our vessels and seafarers in the area including rerouting" around the strait.
“The recent escalations and statement from Yemen’s Houthi movement are concerning as they expand the scope of commercial vessels that could be a potential target for the Houthis,” the shipper said. “Clearly there is a need for the situation to be de-escalated to ensure safety of people and that trade of essential goods can move in a normalized manner.”
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 writers Samy Magdy in Cairo, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Thomas Adamson in Paris contributed to this report.