Houthi missile hits Norwegian tanker in Red Sea; ship reportedly en route to Israel

None hurt as vessel attacked by Iran-backed Yemen rebel group on its way to Suez Canal; reports say boat was headed for Ashdod, though operator says it was taking palm oil to Italy

A Yemeni man carries a gun as he takes part in march to express solidarity with the people of Gaza, in the Houthi-controlled capital Sanaa on December 2, 2023. (MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP)
A Yemeni man carries a gun as he takes part in march to express solidarity with the people of Gaza, in the Houthi-controlled capital Sanaa on December 2, 2023. (MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP)

A missile fired by Yemen’s Houthi rebels struck a Norwegian-flagged tanker in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen near a key maritime chokepoint, authorities said Tuesday.

According to Hebrew-language reports, the tanker was scheduled to anchor at Ashdod’s port early next month.

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. That potentially imperils cargo and energy shipments coming through the Suez Canal and further widens the international impact of the war sparked by the devastating Hamas attack on October 7.

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 naval forces of the Yemeni Armed Forces carried out a qualitative military operation against the Norwegian ship Strinda, which was loaded with oil,” Saree 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 that the ship was bound for Israel.

The US military’s Central Command issued a statement Tuesday saying an anti-ship cruise missile “launched from a Houthi-controlled area of Yemen” hit the Strinda, a 472-foot (144-meter) tanker built in 2006.

“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 el-Mandeb Strait separating East Africa from the Arabian Peninsula.

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, 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 organize a response. But he said if the threats persist, “we will act to remove this blockade.”

Yemenis brandishing their guns flash the V for victory sign from under a Palestinian flag and chant slogans during a march in solidarity with the people of Gaza in the Houthi-controlled capital Sanaa on December 8, 2023. (MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP)

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 describe the ships as not having 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 after it was violated by Hamas, and the resumption of a punishing Israeli ground offensive and airstrikes on Gaza aiming to topple the Hamas terror group that rules it, have raised the risk of more sea attacks.

This handout satellite picture released by Maxar Technologies on November 28, 2023, shows the recently seized Israeli-linked Galaxy Leader ship, that was captured by Houthi rebels on November 19, next to a support vessel in the southern Red Sea near Hodeida, Yemen. (Maxar Technologies / AFP)

Iran-backed groups have carried out repeated attacks in support of Hamas, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which has engaged in near-daily skirmishes with Israeli forces on the Lebanese border, and groups in Iraq which have targeted US forces stationed there and in Syria.

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 US Energy Information Administration. Nearly 10% of all oil traded at sea passes through it.

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.

This photo released by the Houthi Media Center shows a Houthi forces helicopter approaching the cargo ship Galaxy Leader on Nov. 19, 2023 in the Red Sea. (Houthi Media Center via AP)

A separate, tentative ceasefire 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 US launched Tomahawk cruise missiles that destroyed three coastal radar sites in Houthi-controlled territory to retaliate for missiles being fired at US Navy ships at the time.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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