Missile fired by Yemen’s Houthis misses container ship in Bab el-Mandeb Strait

Attack on Maersk Gibraltar, Hong Kong-flagged ship traveling from Oman to Saudi Arabia, is latest in series of seaborne assaults from Yemeni rebels amid Israel-Hamas war

Armed forces loyal to Yemen's Houthi rebels march through the streets of Sanaa in a show of solidarity with the Palestinians on October 15, 2023. (Mohammed Huwais/AFP)
Armed forces loyal to Yemen's Houthi rebels march through the streets of Sanaa in a show of solidarity with the Palestinians on October 15, 2023. (Mohammed Huwais/AFP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A missile fired from territory controlled by Houthi rebels in Yemen missed a container ship traveling through the crucial Bab el-Mandeb Strait on Thursday, a US defense official said, the latest attack threatening shipping in the crucial maritime chokepoint.

The attack saw the missile splash harmlessly in the water near the Maersk Gibraltar, a Hong Kong-flagged container ship that had been traveling from Salalah, Oman, to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the official said.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters. The official’s comments came after the British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which monitors Mideast shipping lanes, put out an alert warning of an incident in the strait, which separates East Africa from the Arabian Peninsula.

Maersk, one of the world’s biggest shippers, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Thursday’s attack marks just the latest in the seaborne attacks attributed to the Houthis as part of their pressure campaign over the Israel-Hamas war raging in the Gaza Strip.

Later Thursday, a Houthi spokesman claimed the rebels had hit the Maersk Gibraltar with a drone strike, after its crew allegedly failed to respond to the rebels’ call to surrender. The spokesman for the Iran-backed fighters, Brig. Gen. Yahya Saree, also claimed the vessel was heading to Israel.

Two missiles fired from Houthi-held territory missed a commercial tanker loaded with Indian-manufactured jet fuel near the key Bab el-Mandeb Strait on Wednesday. Also near the strait, a missile fired by Houthi rebels on Monday night slammed into a Norwegian-flagged tanker in the Red Sea.

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)

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, though several vessels targeted had no apparent link at all.

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. Hamas took some 240 hostages during its October 7 onslaught on southern Israel, in which around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed; 135 are believed to remain captive in Gaza.

The collapse of the truce as Hamas violated its terms and the resumption of Israel’s military operation in Gaza have raised the risk of more sea attacks. Hamas says more than 18,000 people in Gaza have been killed so far, an unconfirmed figure Israeli officials have said is close to accurate, but includes more than 7,000 Hamas operatives as well as people killed by failed Palestinian rocket launches.

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 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 has 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.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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