An Israeli-linked cargo ship in a crucial Red Sea shipping route has been seized by Houthi rebels, according to Israel – which claims Iran was behind the move.
The capture of the vessel, which may be owned by a company belonging to one of Israel‘s richest men, raises fears that tensions from the Israel-Hamas war are spreading to a new maritime front.
The Tehran-backed Houthis had earlier threatened to target Israeli-linked vessels in the Red Sea.
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NBC News, Sky News’ US partner network, cited three US officials as saying the group had used a helicopter to seize the ship.
They have been firing long-range missile and drone salvoes at Israel in solidarity with the Palestinian Hamas since war with Israel flared up on 7 October.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s office said 25 crew members of various nationalities, including Bulgarians, Filipinos, Mexicans and Ukrainians but no Israelis, were on board the hijacked Bahamas-flagged ship.
“All ships belonging to the Israeli enemy or that deal with it will become legitimate targets,” the Houthis said.
Netanyahu’s office called the seizure of the vehicle carrier, Galaxy Leader, an “Iranian act of terror.” The Israeli military called the hijacking a “very grave incident of global consequence”.
Israeli officials said the ship was British-owned and Japanese-operated.
But according to details in public shipping databases, the ship’s ownership is associated with Ray Car Carriers, which was founded by Abraham “Rami” Ungar, one of the richest men in Israel.
Mr Ungar told The Associated Press (AP) news agency that he had been informed of the incident but could not comment until further detail was available.
The British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which provides warnings to sailors in the Persian Gulf and the wider region, put the hijacking as having occurred 90 miles off the coast of Yemen’s port city of Hodeida, near the coast of Eritrea.
The ship’s Automatic Identification System tracker (AIS) had been switched off, according to analysis by AP of satellite tracking data on MarineTraffic.com.
For safety reasons, ships are supposed to keep their AIS active. But crews might turn the AIS off in some instances, such as if they fear they might be targeted.
The Red Sea, stretching from Egypt’s Suez Canal to the narrow Bab el-Mandeb Strait separating the Arabian Peninsula from Africa, is a key trade route for global shipping.
The US Navy has stationed multiple ships in the sea since 7 October.