Houthi missiles target Iran-bound vessel in Red Sea, officials say

Regional security official says Houthis fired at Star Iris, carrying corn from Brazil, to show they are acting independently on Tehran, but informed Islamic Republic in advance

Illustrative: Houthi supporters attend a rally against the US-led airstrikes on Yemen and in support of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip on Yemen, in Sanaa, Yemen, February 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Osamah Abdulrahman)
Illustrative: Houthi supporters attend a rally against the US-led airstrikes on Yemen and in support of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip on Yemen, in Sanaa, Yemen, February 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Osamah Abdulrahman)

DUBAI/LONDON (Reuters) — Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis have targeted a cargo ship in the Red Sea which shipping analysts said on Monday had been carrying corn to Iran.

It appeared to be the first time the Houthis have targeted an Iran-bound vessel since starting attacks on international shipping in solidarity with Palestinians over the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, shipping sources said.

A US defense official said it was likely that the ship had been targeted but not hit, but provided no further comment. Earlier reports by maritime specialists suggested the vessel may have been damaged but that there were no casualties.

The Houthis identified the vessel as the Star Iris. The group’s military spokesman, Yahya Saree, said in a televised statement the ship was American but maritime shipping trackers said the Marshall Islands-flagged ship was Greek-owned.

The Star Iris had been transporting corn cargo from Brazil to Iran, according to ship tracking analysis from data and analytics group Kpler.

“The Star Iris, like every Iran-bound bulker, had not diverted away from the Red Sea, perhaps unafraid of attacks from Iran-backed Houthis who could be considered ‘friendly’ given the vessel’s destination,” said Ishan Bhanu, lead agricultural commodities analyst at Kpler.

Illustrative: This photo provided by the Indian Navy shows US-owned ship Genco Picardy that came under attack Wednesday from a bomb-carrying drone launched by Yemen’s Houthi rebels in the Gulf of Aden, January 18, 2024. (Indian Navy via AP)

“It was carrying corn from Brazil. At a projected 4.5 million tonnes for this year, flows from Brazil make for the majority of Iran’s corn imports.”

A regional security official said the attack appeared designed to “show Iran does not control the Houthis and they act independently,” but that the Houthis had informed Tehran in advance.

Houthi militants in Yemen, who control the country’s most populous regions, have repeatedly fired on international commercial shipping since mid-November. Their targets have been vessels with commercial ties to the United States, Britain, or Israel, shipping and insurance sources say.

The attacks have prompted several companies to halt Red Sea journeys and opt for a longer and more expensive route around Africa, and US and British warplanes have carried out retaliatory strikes across Yemen.

Star Iris

The Star Iris, a large Panamax bulk carrier, is managed by Athens-headquartered and US NASDAQ-listed Star Bulk Carriers.

A Star Bulk spokesperson referred questions to the US-led coalition tasked with containing such attacks.

Iranian officials did not respond to a request for comment. Iran’s food commodities trade is exempt from US sanctions.

British maritime security firm Ambrey and the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) agency said early on Monday that a Marshall Islands-flagged, Greece-owned bulk carrier had been targeted by missiles in two incidents while passing through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.

Ambrey said the bulker had reportedly suffered damage to its starboard side after sighting a projectile near the vessel 23 nautical miles (43km) northeast of Djibouti’s Khor Angar and 40 nautical miles southwest of Yemen’s Red Sea port city of Mokha.

Ambrey said the bulker was reportedly headed to Bandar Imam Khomeini, one of Iran’s biggest ports and a major grains terminal. UKMTO said the crew was unharmed and the vessel was proceeding to its next port of call.

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