Houthis claim hit on cargo ship in Red Sea but US official says drone ship missed

Iran-backed group spokesman says attack on Maersk container ship is retaliation for ‘oppression of the Palestinian people,’ hours after US, allies issue ‘final warning’

Illustrative: A Maersk container ship at Aqaba, Jordan, on the Red Sea on October 3, 2019. (eugenesergeev/iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative: A Maersk container ship at Aqaba, Jordan, on the Red Sea on October 3, 2019. (eugenesergeev/iStock by Getty Images)

Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels claimed responsibility Thursday for a drone ship attack on a cargo vessel traveling in a Red Sea strait through which a significant portion of the world’s shipping passes, but according to a US official, the missile missed.

The Houthi rebels said the Maersk Gibraltar container ship was “targeted with a drone and the hit was direct.”

Houthi spokesman Yahya Saree said the attack came after the ship’s crew “refused to respond to the calls of the Yemeni naval services,” and that it was intended as retaliation for the “oppression of the Palestinian people.”

Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, the head of US Navy operations in the Middle East, said it was the first time the Houthis had used an unmanned surface vessel, or USV, since their harassment of commercial ships in the Red Sea began after the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war. They have, however, used them in years past.

Fabian Hinz, a missile expert and research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the USVs are a key part of the Houthi maritime arsenal and were used during previous battles against the Saudi coalition forces that intervened in Yemen’s war. They have regularly been used as suicide drone boats that explode upon impact.

Most of the Houthi USVs are likely assembled in Yemen, but often fitted with components made in Iran, such as computerized guidance systems, Hinz said.

The Houthis have claimed a series of near-daily drone and missile assaults in the key maritime route, threatening international shipping in a pressure campaign over the war in Gaza.

Houthi military spokesman, Brigadier Yahya Saree, delivers a statement on the recent attacks against two commercial vessels in the Red Sea during a march in solidarity with the people of Gaza in the capital Sanaa on December 15, 2023. (Mohammed Huwais/AFP)

On Saturday, the Houthis vowed to continue their attacks until more aid enters the Gaza Strip, where Israel is at war with the ruling Hamas terror group following its devastating October 7 attack that killed over 1,200 people in Israel, mostly civilians.

Regardless of which flag ships sail under or the nationality of their owners or operators, Israel-bound vessels “will become a legitimate target for our armed forces,” the Houthi statement said.

US, French and British warships are patrolling the area and several Houthi missiles have been shot down while in flight.

A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak publicly, said the missile fired at the Maersk Gibraltar “missed the ship” and instead hit the water.

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

Later on Thursday, the US Central Command (CENTCOM) said that a ballistic missile had been “fired from a Houthi-controlled area of Yemen toward the international shipping lane north of the Bab-el-Mandeb,” the strait between Yemen and the Horn of Africa leading to the Red Sea.

There were no injuries or damages to the Hong Kong-flagged vessel, CENTCOM said in a post on social media platform X.

“While this incident did not involve US Forces, we continue to closely monitor the situation. These attacks continue to threaten international maritime security,” it added.

Danish shipping giant Maersk confirmed no one was hurt in the incident involving its ship, which was sailing from Salalah, Oman to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

“The crew and vessel is reported safe,” Maersk said in a statement, adding that the company was “still working to establish the facts of the incident.”

Maersk said that “the recent attacks on commercial vessels… are extremely concerning.”

“The current situation puts seafarer lives at risk and is unsustainable for global trade. As it cannot be solved by the global shipping industry on its own, we call on political action to ensure a swift de-escalation,” it added.

An Israeli navy missile boat patrols in the Red Sea off the coast of Eilat on December 26, 2023. (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP)

Intelligence firm Ambrey said the Marshall Islands-owned ship was fired upon 45 nautical miles off the coast of Mocha, and also said that the crew was unharmed.

“Ambrey understands that the parent company has cooperated with an Israeli carrier but this particular vessel was not assessed to be Israeli-operated at the time of writing,” the firm said in a statement.

As they did with several other vessels recently, the Houthis first ordered it to dock in a Yemeni port before firing on it when it did not comply, Ambrey said.

The drone attack came a day after 12 nations led by the United States jointly warned the Houthi rebels of unspecified consequences unless they halt their attacks on shipping vessels in the Red Sea.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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