Oil tanker hit near Indian coast amid maritime hostilities against Israel by Houthis

The ship, identified as the Liberian-flagged Chem Pluto, sustains damage but none of its mostly-Indian crew are hurt; Jerusalem believes Iran behind drone strike on high seas

A picture of the oil tanker Chem Pluto as it appears on the website of the Port of Hamburg, Germany, on December 23, 2023. (Courtesy of the Port of Hamburg)
A picture of the oil tanker Chem Pluto as it appears on the website of the Port of Hamburg, Germany, on December 23, 2023. (Courtesy of the Port of Hamburg)

A drone strike damaged a ship off the coast of India on Saturday but caused no casualties, two maritime agencies said, with one reporting the merchant vessel was linked to Israel.

Jerusalem believes Tehran was directly behind the attack, according to Hebrew media Saturday.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the strike, which comes amid a flurry of drone and missile attacks by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis on a vital shipping lane in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

The Houthis have launched more than 100 drone and missile attacks, targeting 10 merchant vessels in the Red Sea, the Pentagon said Friday, in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, where Israel is battling the Hamas terror group following its October 7 massacre in Israel, when terrorists killed 1,200 people, a majority civilians, and took some 240 hostages.

The assault Saturday caused a fire on board, said the British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, or UKMTO.

Ambrey, a maritime security firm, said the “Liberia-flagged chemical/products tanker… was Israel-affiliated” and had been on its way from Saudi Arabia to India.

The incident on the chemical product tanker occurred 120 miles (200 kilometers) southwest of the Indian port of Veraval, said Ambrey. It gave no further details about the vessel’s alleged Israeli links.

Ambrey said the drone attack struck the stern and caused a fire onboard that was later extinguished without any casualties among the crew. The firm said the vessel suffered some structural damage and some water was taken onboard.

The Indian news agency ANI identified the tanker as MV Chem Pluto carrying crude oil from Saudi Arabia. Citing Indian defense sources, ANI said the tanker had around 20 Indian nationals on board. Multiple shipping sites describe Chem Pluto as being owned by a Japan-based firm.

Israel’s Kan 11 broadcaster reported that it is the first attack on an allegedly Israeli-linked vessel on the high seas. Israeli officials believe the striking drone was launched directly from Iran, Channel 12 reported.

As the attack occurred near Veraval, it is unlikely to have been carried out from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen, according to the report.

Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen publish a video showing how the group hijacked an Israeli-linked shipping vessel in the Red Sea on November 20, 2023. (Screen capture/X)

The Indian navy said it responded to a request for assistance shortly after the attack.

“Indian Navy had dispatched an aircraft, which arrived overhead the MV (merchant vessel),” a statement from the navy said. “Safety of the crew and ship was ascertained. A warship has also been dispatched to provide any assistance as required.”

On Friday, Washington said Iran has been “deeply involved” in the planning of attacks by Houthi rebels against commercial vessels in the Red Sea, intensifying its rhetoric against Tehran amid the growing crisis surrounding global shipping efforts.

Citing newly declassified American intelligence, White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement that Iran is providing weapons, funding, training and “tactical intelligence” to enable the strikes along the critical sea corridor.

“Iranian support throughout the Gaza crisis has enabled the Houthis to launch attacks against Israel and maritime targets, though Iran has often deferred operational decision-making authority to the Houthis,” Watson said.

The Houthis have declared themselves part of an “axis of resistance” of Iran’s allies and proxies targeting Israel over its war with Hamas.

On Saturday, Iran’s deputy foreign minister dismissed the US accusation, saying the group was acting on its own.

“The resistance [Houthis] has its own tools… and acts in accordance with its own decisions and capabilities,” Iran’s deputy foreign minister Ali Bagheri told Mehr news agency.

Military loyal to Yemen’s Houthis chant slogans during a rally marking the seventh anniversary of the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in their country, in the capital Sanaa, March 26, 2022. (Mohammed Huwais/AFP)

Iran, which has long backed the Yemeni rebels, has provided unmanned aerial systems, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles to the Houthis, including those used in recent strikes on commercial and military vessels and attempted attacks on Israel, according to the US assessment.

The US has established a naval coalition to protect the Red Sea global shipping lane. However, the Biden administration has not yet taken the step to reverse its decision to declassify the Houthis as a terror organization. US officials say Washington is still considering the move.

The Houthi campaign has prompted a growing list of companies to halt operations in the major trade route.

More than 20 countries have joined the effort to protect Red Sea shipping from attacks by Houthi rebels, Pentagon spokesman Major General Pat Ryder on Friday told journalists.

Illustrative image of the port of Eilat. (Jorge Novominsky/Flash90)

The Houthis are “attacking the economic wellbeing and prosperity of nations around the world,” effectively becoming “bandits along the international highway that is the Red Sea,” Ryder said.

Multiple shipping companies have suspended their Red Sea routes following the attacks, leading to a decrease in traffic at Israel’s Eilat Port and other ports in the region.

On November 19, Houthi militias seized the Galaxy Leader, a commercial, Bahamas-flagged car carrier that is owned by Ray Shipping, which is partly owned by Israeli businessman Rami Ungar. The ship’s 25-person crew, none of whom are Israeli, is being held hostage in Yemen.

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)

This was one of at least 16 acts of hostilities attributed to the Houthis against maritime vessels since November 19 alone, Haaretz reported on Wednesday.

The Houthis have also launched missiles and drones at southern Israel, which were intercepted by air defense systems.

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