April 21st, 2024

Suspected Yemen Houthi rebel attack hits a ship in the Gulf of Aden, sends crew fleeing in lifeboats

By Jon Gambrell, The Associated Press on March 6, 2024.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – A suspected attack by Yemen’s Houthi rebels damaged a ship in the Gulf of Aden and sent the crew fleeing for their lives on Wednesday, authorities said, the latest in a campaign of assaults by the group over Israel’s war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The attack came as a U.S. destroyer separately shot down drones and a missile launched by the Houthis and as the Indian navy released images of it fighting a fire aboard a container ship earlier targeted by the rebels.

Meanwhile, Iran announced Wednesday that it would confiscate a $50 million cargo of Kuwaiti crude oil for American energy firm Chevron Corp. aboard a tanker it seized nearly a year earlier. It marks the latest twist in a yearslong shadow war playing out in the Middle East’s waterways even before the Houthi attacks began.

The attack Wednesday in the Gulf of Aden targeted a Barbados-flagged bulk carrier called True Confidence, which earlier had been hailed over radio by individuals claiming to be the Yemeni military, officials said. The Houthis have been hailing ships over the radio in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden since launching their attacks, with analysts suspecting the rebels want to seize the vessels.

The British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations center described the True Confidence as reportedly being hit in the attack and sustaining damage. The extent of the damage to the Liberian-flagged ship remained unclear, but the crew fled the ship and deployed lifeboats – signaling a serious incident, said a U.S. defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.

A U.S. warship and the Indian navy were on the scene, trying to assist in rescue efforts, the official said.

The Houthis didn’t immediately claim the attack, though it typically takes several hours for them to acknowledge an assault.

Since November, the rebels have repeatedly targeted ships in the Red Sea and surrounding waters over the Israel-Hamas war. Those vessels have included at least one with cargo bound for Iran, the Houthis’ main benefactor, and an aid ship later bound for Houthi-controlled territory.

Despite more than a month and a half of U.S.-led airstrikes, Houthi rebels have remained capable of launching significant attacks. They include the attack last month on a cargo ship carrying fertilizer, the Rubymar, which sank on Saturday after drifting for several days, and the downing of an American drone worth tens of millions of dollars.

It was unclear why the Houthis targeted the True Confidence. However, it had previously been owned by Oaktree Capital Management, a Los Angeles-based fund that finances vessels on installments. Oaktree declined to comment.

Meanwhile, a separate Houthi assault Tuesday apparently targeted the USS Carney, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer that has been involved in the American campaign against the rebels.

The Houthi attack on the Carney on Tuesday involved bomb-carrying drones and one anti-ship ballistic missile, the U.S. military’s Central Command said.

The U.S. later launched an airstrike destroying three anti-ship missiles and three bomb-carrying drone boats, the Central Command said.

Brig. Gen. Yahya Saree, a Houthi military spokesperson, acknowledged the attack, but claimed its forces targeted two American warships, without elaborating.

The Houthis “will not stop until the aggression is stopped and the siege on the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip is lifted,” Saree said.

Saree did not acknowledge the later U.S. airstrikes. The Houthis haven’t offered any assessment of the damage they’ve suffered in the American-led strikes that began in January, though they’ve said at least 22 of their fighters have been killed.

Meanwhile, the Indian navy released a video of its sailors from the INS Kolkata fighting a fire aboard the MSC Sky II, which had been targeted by the Houthis in the Gulf of Aden on Monday. Smoke poured out of one container aboard the vessel, which also showed scorch marks from the impact of a Houthi missile.

The Mediterranean Shipping Co., a Switzerland-based company, said the missile struck the ship as it was traveling from Singapore to Djibouti.

“The missile caused a small fire that has been extinguished while no crew were injured,” the company said.

Iran separately announced the seizure of the crude oil aboard the Advantage Sweet through an announcement carried by the judiciary’s state-run Mizan news agency. At the time, Iranian commandos rappelled from a helicopter onto the vessel, which it alleged collided with another ship, without offering any evidence.

The court order for the seizure offered an entirely different reason for the confiscation. Mizan said it was part of a court order over U.S. sanctions it alleged barred the importation of a Swedish medicine used to treat patients suffering from epidermolysis bullosa, a rare genetic condition that causes blisters all over the body and eyes. It didn’t reconcile the different reasons for the seizure.

The Advantage Sweet had been in the Persian Gulf in late April, but its track showed no unusual behavior as it transited through the Strait of Hormuz, where a fifth of all traded oil passes. Iran has made allegations in other seizures that later fell apart as it became clear Tehran was trying to leverage the capture as a chip to negotiate with foreign nations.

Chevron, based in San Ramon, California, said Wednesday that the Advantage Sweet had been “seized under false pretenses” and that the company “has not had any direct communication with Iran over the seizure of the vessel.”

“Chevron has not been permitted access to the vessel and considers the cargo a total loss due to Iran’s illegal actions,” Chevron said in a statement. “We now consider the cargo the responsibility of the Iranian government.”

Ship seizures and explosions have roiled the region since 2019. The incidents began after then President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, which saw Tehran drastically limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

The U.S. Navy also has blamed Iran for a series of limpet mine attacks on vessels that damaged tankers in 2019, as well as for a fatal drone attack on an Israeli-linked oil tanker that killed two European crew members in 2021. Tehran denies carrying out the attacks.

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Nasser Karimi contributed to this report from Tehran, Iran.

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