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Houthis escalate attacks on Red Sea as missile strike hits British fuel tanker in Gulf of Aden

The missile attack on the British oil tanker Marlin Luanda sparked a fire aboard, according to trading firm Trafigura. The incident, and a Houthi missile targeting a US warship in the Gulf of Aden, represent the biggest escalation of the conflict of the ongoing conflict, officials say.

Aveek Banerjee Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Sanaa (Yemen) Published on: January 27, 2024 10:09 IST
Houthis, Red Sea attacks, US warship, oil tanker
Image Source : AP (FILE) The Houthis have protested US backing of Israel and have attacked several American ships.

Red Sea crisis: Yemen's Iran-aligned Houthis have stepped up their attacks on commercial vessels transiting the Red Sea, as one of their missile strikes hit a British-operated fuel tanker in the Gulf of Aden, which caused a fire. The tanker Marlin Luanda operated on behalf of the trading firm Trafigura, and was carrying Russian naphtha along the Red Sea before being attacked.

According to the company, firefighting equipment on board was deployed to suppress and control a fire in a cargo tank on the starboard side, while military ships were underway to provide assistance. "We remain in contact with the vessel and are monitoring the situation carefully," it said. Many oil tankers have kept using the strategic Red Sea route despite attacks by Houthi rebels.

The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) agency and British maritime security firm Ambrey said they had received reports of vessels being struck in the Red Sea near Yemen's Aden and a fire breaking out aboard. On the same day, a vessel  Free Spirit, chartered by Vitol to carry crude oil, did a U-turn before reaching the Gulf of Aden, shortly after the attack on the Marlin Luanda, according to data from LSEG.

UKMTO received a report of an incident approximately 60 nautical miles southeast of Aden where "a vessel has been struck by a missile and remains on fire." Crew members were reportedly safe. "Coalition Warships are in attendance and supporting the vessel," UKMTO added. Earlier, UKMTO reported an incident in which two missiles exploded in waters near a ship off the port of Aden and another one 60 nautical miles off Yemen's Hodeidah port.

Houthis target US warship

The Houthi rebels also launched a missile towards a US warship patrolling the Gulf of Aden on Friday, forcing it to shoot down a projectile, according to the American military. No injuries were reported in that incident as well, although the two incidents combined represent the biggest escalation of the confrontation between the Iran-backed group and the US Navy in the Middle East.

The attack on USS Carney is the first time the Houthis directly targeted a US warship since the rebels began their assaults on shipping in October, a US official said on condition of anonymity. However, the Pentagon said it was difficult to determine what exactly the Houthis were trying to hit.

The US Central Command said an anti-ship ballistic missile came near the USS Carney, an Arleigh-Burke class destroyer that's been involved in American operations to try and stop the Houthi campaign since November. "The missile was successfully shot down by USS Carney," it said. "There were no injuries or damage reported."

Brad Bowman, a senior director at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said acknowledging Friday's attack as a direct attack on a US warship was important. "They're now finally calling a spade a spade, and saying that, yeah, they're trying to attack our forces, they're trying to kill us," he said.

Strikes on Houthis

The US and Britain have launched multiple rounds of airstrikes since the Houthi attacks began targeting Houthi missile depots and launcher sites in Yemen, a country that's been wrecked by conflict since the rebels seized the capital, Sanaa, in 2014. The Houthis have repeatedly targeted ships in the Red Sea, saying they were avenging Israel's offensive in Gaza against Hamas.

Since the airstrike campaign began, the rebels now say they'll target American and British ships as well. On Wednesday, two American-flagged ships carrying cargo for the US Defense and State departments came under attack by the Houthis, forcing an escorting US Navy warship to shoot some of the projectiles down.

The Houthi 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. Currently, 10-15% of global trade passes through the Red Sea, and international shipping companies are having to reroute through the Cape of Good Hope, adding weeks to the delivery of key goods and materials, including oil and gas. 

The Houthi attacks have also stoked fears of global inflation and sparked concerns that fallout from the Israel-Hamas war could destabilise the Middle East. Iran backs Hamas, Lebanon-based group Hezbollah and the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and their involvement in the war has drawn strong condemnation from Western countries. The confrontation risks an expansion of the conflict beyond Hamas-governed Gaza, where the local health ministry says over 26,000 people have been killed in Israel's assault.

(with inputs from Reuters, AP)

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