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Houthi missile strikes US-owned ship off Yemen's coast as tensions reach boiling point

No injuries or significant damage was reported aboard MV Gibraltar Eagle, a Marshall Islands-flagged bulk carrier owned and operated by the US-based Eagle Bulk Shipping. The Houthis on Sunday launched an anti-ship missile against in the direction of the USS Laboon, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Sanaa (Yemen) Updated on: January 16, 2024 8:00 IST
Houthis, US ship, Red Sea, Middle East
Image Source : REUTERS US and allies countries launched a massive strike against the Houthis last week.

Red Sea crisis: A missile launched by Houthis struck a US-owned ship on Monday near Yemen's coast in the Gulf of Aden, less than a day after the group launched an anti-ship cruise missile towards an American destroyer in the Red Sea. The attacks have further sparked concerns over the spread of the Israel-Hamas war as the Yemen-based rebels threatened retaliation for an attack by America and allied countries after weeks of assaults on shipping in the Red Sea.

The attack against the MV Gibraltar Eagle ship marked the first time that the Houthis have successfully struck a US-owned or operated ship. The US Central Command said that the vessel, a Marshall Islands-flagged bulk carrier owned and operated by the US-based Eagle Bulk, suffered no injuries or any significant damage.

"On Jan 15 at approximately 4 pm (Sanaa time), Iranian-backed Houthi militants fired an anti-ship ballistic missile from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen and struck the M/V Gibraltar Eagle, a Marshall Islands-flagged, U.S.-owned and operated container ship. The ship has reported no injuries or significant damage and is continuing its journey," said the Command on X.

The UK Maritime Trade Operations said Monday's attack happened some 177 km southeast of Aden. It said the ship’s captain reported that the "port side of vessel hit from above by a missile". Private security firms Ambrey and Dryad Global also confirmed the name of the vessel. Afterwards, Houthi military spokesman Yahya Saree claimed the attack in a recorded television address that aired on Monday night.

“The Yemeni armed forces consider all American and British ships and warships participating in the aggression against our country as hostile targets,” he said. Central Command further said it detected a separate anti-ship ballistic missile launch toward the southern Red Sea on Monday, though it ”failed in flight and impacted on land in Yemen.”

More vessels steer clear

This came after the Houthi rebels fired an anti-ship cruise missile toward an American destroyer in the Red Sea on Sunday. However, Biden officials claimed a US fighter jet shot it down in the latest attack roiling global shipping amid Israel’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The attack marks the first US-acknowledged fire by the Houthis since America and allied nations began strikes on Friday targeting the rebels.

The Houthis have targeted that crucial corridor linking Asian and Mideast energy and cargo shipments to the Suez Canal onward to Europe over the Israel-Hamas war, attacks that threaten to widen that conflict into a regional conflagration. The US Maritime Administration has issued a warning of a continuing “high degree of risk to commercial vessels” traveling near Yemen.

“While the decision to transit remains at the discretion of individual vessels and companies, it is recommended that US flag and US-owned commercial vessels” stay away from Yemen in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden “until further notice,” the advisory said. Ship-tracking data on Monday showed at least 15 tankers altering course in response to the escalating conflict.

It wasn’t presently clear whether the US would retaliate for the latest attacks, though US President Joe Biden has said he “will not hesitate to direct further measures to protect our people and the free flow of international commerce as necessary.”

Meanwhile, the Houthis said they would expand their targets to include US ships, an official from the Iran-backed group said on Monday. "The ship doesn't necessarily have to be heading to Israel for us to target it. It is enough for it to be American...The United States is on the verge of losing its maritime security," said Nasruldeen Amer, a spokesperson for the Houthis.

The Houthis previously said they would only target Israeli ships or those en route to Israel. The Iran-backed Houthis, who control much of Yemen, have launched waves of exploding drones and missiles at commercial vessels in protest against Israel's operations in Gaza.

Boiling tensions

After weeks of attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea, the US and British militaries launched a massive retaliatory strike on the Houthis, using warship and submarine-launched Tomahawk missiles and fighter jets to strike 60 targets in 28 locations that included command-and-control nodes, munitions depots, launching systems, production facilities and air defense radar systems. Five people were killed in the strike.

The Houthis' military spokesman Yahya Saree said 73 strikes hit five regions of Yemen under their control without elaborating on who was killed. “The American and British enemy bears full responsibility for its criminal aggression against our Yemeni people, and it will not go unanswered and unpunished,” Saree said.

The strikes marked the first US military response to what has been a persistent campaign of drone and missile attacks on commercial ships since the start of the Israel-Hamas war. This coordinated attack also comes a week after the US and its allies issued a "final warning" to the Houthis to cease the attacks on commercial ships or face possible military action. 

The attacks have targeted ships in the Red Sea, which links the Mideast and Asia to Europe via the Suez Canal, and its narrow Bab el-Mandeb Strait. The attacks have led to concerns over the possible expansion of the Israel-Hamas war as well as the end of an uneasy ceasefire in Yemen in case of a retaliatory US strike on the poorest country in the Arab world.

Additionally, the attacks have disrupted international shipping, causing some companies to suspend transits through the Red Sea and use the much longer and costlier journey through Africa. The Houthis say their attacks aim to end the pounding Israeli air-and-ground offensive targeting the Gaza Strip, but the links to the ships targeted in the rebel assaults have grown more tenuous as the attacks continue.

(with inputs from agencies)

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