DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The United States Navy captured five armed assailants who had briefly hijacked a tanker linked to Israel in the Gulf of Aden on Sunday, officials said. The incident was followed by two ballistic missiles fired from Yemen’s Houthi-controlled territory that landed near a U.S. warship assisting the tanker, escalating the tensions in the region amid a spate of ship attacks related to the Israel-Hamas conflict.
The Yemeni government, which is recognized by the international community and based in Aden, accused the Iran-backed Houthi rebels of the attack, but the rebels who control the capital, Sanaa, did not claim responsibility for either the hijacking or the missile strike.
The assailants had boarded the Liberian-flagged Central Park, which is managed by Zodiac Maritime, in the Gulf of Aden, according to the company, the U.S. and British militaries and private intelligence firm Ambrey.
The U.S. military’s Central Command said in a statement early Monday that it and its allies, including the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Mason, had responded to the hijacking and demanded the release of the tanker.
“Following the demand, five armed individuals left the ship and tried to escape on their small boat,” Central Command said. “The Mason chased the attackers and eventually made them surrender.”
Central Command did not identify the attackers, but said they were followed by a missile launch from Houthi-held Yemen early Monday morning.
“The missiles landed in the Gulf of Aden about 10 nautical miles (18.5 kilometers) from the ships,” the statement said. “The USS Mason … was finishing its response to the M/V Central Park distress call when the missiles were launched. Neither vessel suffered any damage or injuries during this incident.”
Zodiac said early Monday morning that the vessel, which was carrying phosphoric acid, and its crew of 22 sailors from Bulgaria, Georgia, India, the Philippines, Russia, Turkey and Vietnam were safe.
“We are grateful to the coalition forces who acted swiftly, protecting the assets in the area and enforcing the international maritime law,” the company said.
Zodiac said the vessel was owned by Clumvez Shipping Inc., but other records showed Zodiac as the owner. Zodiac Maritime, based in London, is part of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group. British corporate records showed two men with the surname Ofer as a current and a former director of Clumvez Shipping, including Daniel Guy Ofer, who is also a director at Zodiac Maritime.
The Yemeni government condemned the hijacking as an act of maritime piracy by the “terrorist Houthi militias” with the support of the Iranian regime, in a statement carried by its state-run news agency.
The attack occurred in an area of the Gulf of Aden that is theoretically under the control of the government’s forces and far from the Houthi-controlled territory in the country. Somali pirates are not known to operate in that area.
Zodiac Maritime has been a target of a wider, yearslong covert war between Iran and Israel. In 2021, a drone attack attributed by the U.S. and other Western countries to Iran killed two crew members on Zodiac’s oil tanker Mercer Street off the coast of Oman.
The British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which issues alerts to sailors in the Middle East, had previously warned sailors that “two black-and-white craft with eight people in military-style clothing” had been spotted in the area.
According to the UKMTO, the Central Park was located in the Gulf of Aden, a vital shipping lane, over 60 kilometers south of Yemen, 80 kilometers east of Djibouti and 110 kilometers northeast of Somalia.
The vessel was seized by the Houthis after another container ship, the CMA CGM Symi, owned by an Israeli billionaire, was attacked by a presumed Iranian drone in the Indian Ocean on Friday. Iran has neither confirmed nor denied its involvement in the attack, and did not answer the AP’s inquiries.
Both the Symi and the Central Park had taken precautions against possible threats in the past few days.
They had turned off their Automatic Identification System trackers, as per the AP’s analysis of data from MarineTraffic.com. Although ships are expected to keep their AIS on for safety purposes, they may switch them off if they feel endangered. The last transmission from the Central Park was four days ago, when it departed from the Suez Canal and headed south into the Red Sea.
As the Israel-Hamas war risks escalating into a broader regional conflict, global shipping has faced increasing attacks – even as a ceasefire has stopped the fighting and Hamas swaps hostages for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
The Houthis had captured a vehicle transport ship linked to Israel in the Red Sea off Yemen earlier in November. The vessel remains in their custody near the port city of Hodeida.
The Houthis had not directly targeted the Americans for a while, which adds to the tension in the growing maritime conflict. In 2016, the U.S. fired Tomahawk cruise missiles that obliterated three coastal radar sites under Houthi control, in response to missiles being launched at U.S. Navy ships, including the USS Mason.