Militants in latest ship attack near Yemen were likely Somali: Pentagon

A group of five militants who seized another commercial ship near Yemen, believed to be Somali and non-Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, were captured by US forces on Sunday after fleeing the MV Central Park in the Gulf of Aden , said Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters Monday.

Shortly afterwards, ballistic missiles had been fired from Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen, and the Pentagon has not ruled out that the Houthis were somehow linked to the attack carried out by Somalis.

The attacks on commercial ships have previously been carried out by Houthis and are part of a larger increase in violence in the region due to the war between Israel and Hamas.

Yemen’s internationally recognized government in Aden has said this was a Houthi attack on Central Park, a Liberian-flagged ship operated by Zodiac Maritime. The ship sent out a distress call and troops from the USS Mason, an American destroyer, responded.

Zodiac called the attack a suspected piracy incident.

Our priority is the safety of our 22 crew members on board, Zodiac said in a statement. The Turkish-led ship has a multinational crew consisting of Russian, Vietnamese, Bulgarian, Indian, Georgian and Philippine nationals. The ship is carrying a full cargo of phosphoric acid.

Zodiac described the ship as owned by Clumvez Shipping Inc, although other records directly linked Zodiac as the owner. London-based Zodiac Maritime is part of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group. British company documents listed two men with the surname Ofer as current and former directors of Clumvez Shipping, including Daniel Guy Ofer, who is also a director at Zodiac Maritime.

It was not immediately clear who was behind the attack. Aden is being held by forces affiliated with Yemen’s internationally recognized government and a Saudi-led coalition that has been fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen for years. That part of the Gulf of Aden is theoretically under the control of those forces and is quite far from Houthi-controlled territory in the country. Somali pirates are also not known to be active in that area.

The US defense official said it appeared an unknown number of unidentified armed individuals had seized the ship.

U.S. and coalition forces are in the area and we are closely monitoring the situation,” the official said.

Ambrey said it appears U.S. naval forces are involved in the situation and have asked ships to stay away from the area.

Zodiac Maritime was previously targeted during a broader, years-long shadow war between Iran and Israel. In 2021, a drone strike that the US and other Western countries say was carried out by Iran killed two crew members aboard Zodiac’s oil tanker Mercer Street off the coast of Oman.

The British Army’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which issues warnings to sailors in the Middle East, had previously issued a warning to sailors that two black and white vessels carrying eight people in military dress had been spotted in the area. It issued another alert saying radio traffic suggested a possible attack had taken place.

The seizure of Central Park comes after a container ship, CMA CGM Symi, owned by an Israeli billionaire, was attacked by a suspected Iranian drone in the Indian Ocean on Friday as Israel wages war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, a US defense official said on Saturday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to discuss intelligence matters.

The attacks come as global shipping is increasingly targeted in the weeks-long war that threatens to spiral into a broader regional conflict, even as a ceasefire has halted fighting and Hamas is exchanging hostages for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

As the war between Israel and Hamas, which began with the militant Palestinian group’s Oct. 7 attack, continued, the Houthis seized a vehicle transport ship in the Red Sea near Yemen.

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