Yemen’s Huthi rebels struck a cargo ship in the Red Sea on Friday, causing a fire on deck in the latest of a near-daily series of attacks in the commercially vital waterway.
The Iran-backed Huthis, who control much of Yemen but are not recognised internationally, say they’re targeting shipping to pressure Israel during its two-month-old war with Palestinian Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
“We are aware that something launched from a Huthi-controlled region of Yemen struck this vessel which was damaged, and there was a report of a fire,” the US defence official told AFP.
Speaking in Tel Aviv, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said: “While the Huthis are pulling the trigger, so to speak, they’re being handed the gun by Iran.”
The US defence official identified the ship as the Liberia-flagged Al-Jasrah, a 370-metre (1,200-foot) container ship built in 2016.
Private intelligence firm Ambrey said the vessel, owned by German transport company Hapag-Lloyd, “sustained physical damage from an aerial attack” north of the Yemeni coastal city of Mokha.
“The projectile reportedly hit the port side of the vessel and one container fell overboard due to the impact. The projectile caused a fire on deck” that was reported over radio, Ambrey said.
The Iran-backed rebels have said they will target any ships travelling to Israel irrespective of their nationality, and are now launching near-daily attacks, although they are mostly unsuccessful.
A Hapag-Lloyd spokesman told AFP: “There has been an attack on one of our ships.”
The ship was en route from the Greek port of Piraeus to Singapore. There were no casualties and the ship is now travelling on towards its destination, he added.
Sullivan, who is visiting Israel, said the Huthis were threatening freedom of movement in the Red Sea, vital for massive oil and goods shipments.
“The United States is working with the international community, with partners from the region and from all over the world to deal with this threat,” he told reporters.
The attack occurred near Bab al-Mandab, the narrow strait between Yemen and northeast Africa through which much of global commerce flows.
Some 40 percent of international trade passes through the area, which leads to the Red Sea, Israel’s southern port facilities, and the Suez Canal.
Insurance costs for ships transiting the area have jumped in recent days, amounting to increases in the tens of thousands of dollars for larger ships like oil tankers, reports say.
While warships passing through the Red Sea are well equipped and can retaliate, commercial vessels do not have the same protections.
Crews under fire by heavy weapons typically abandon the bridge and control their vessels remotely from an armoured citadel.
Israel’s regional enemies cite the high Palestinian death toll and occupation of much of Gaza as motivating their attacks, raising the risk of the conflict spreading further.
The rebels have tried to hijack and capture several ships, succeeding at least once in November. They typically order them to surrender and head to a Yemeni port, and open fire if they do not comply.
US, French and British warships are patrolling the area and have shot several missiles out of the sky.