Houthis fire two missiles at jet fuel tanker in Red Sea; US warship downs drone

Officials say missiles miss the Ardmore Encounter, which was carrying its volatile cargo from India to Europe; no injuries or damage reported in latest attack by Iran-backed rebels

Houthi soldiers stand guard on a missile carrier during a military parade on September 21, 2023. (MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP)
Houthi soldiers stand guard on a missile carrier during a military parade on September 21, 2023. (MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — 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, a US official said.

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

The assault on the tanker Ardmore Encounter further internationalizes 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 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 had been coming from Mangalore, India, and had an armed security crew aboard it, according to data transmitted by the ship.

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 carried 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 in Sweden, Ardmore Shipping said. Shell declined to comment.

This November 12, 2018 photo shows the USS Carney in the Mediterranean Sea. (Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Ryan U. Kledzik/US Navy via AP)

Ardmore Shipping traded slight 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 an incident in the same area of the Ardmore Encounter. It also reported an incident occurring off the coast of Oman.

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.

Israel launched a ground offensive in Gaza after the October 7 Hamas assault on southern Israel in which some 3,000 Hamas terrorists invaded southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and taking some 240 hostages.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza has claimed that since the start of the war, more than 18,400 people have been killed, mostly civilians. These figures cannot be independently verified and are believed to include some 7,000 Hamas terrorists, according to Israel, as well as civilians killed by misfired Palestinian rockets. Another estimated 1,000 terrorists were killed in Israel during the October 7 onslaught.

Analysts suggest the Houthis are using the Israel-Hamas war in the hope they can 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 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.

Nevertheless, Israel on Tuesday announced that it had sent one of its advanced  Sa’ar 6-class corvettes to the Red Sea area.

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 security prisoners held by Israel.

This photo released by the Houthi Media Center shows Houthi forces boarding the cargo ship Galaxy Leader on Sunday, November 19, 2023. (Houthi Media Center via AP)

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. 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 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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