Attackers seized and later let go a tanker linked to Israel off the coast of Yemen on Sunday, authorities said. Yemen's internationally recognized government blamed the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels for the attack, which followed at least two other recent maritime attacks linked to the Israel-Hamas war.
The attackers seized the Liberian-flagged Central Park, managed by Zodiac Maritime, in the Gulf of Aden, the company, the U.S. and British militaries and private intelligence firm Ambrey said.
Early Monday morning, Zodiac said the vessel carrying phosphoric acid and its crew of 22 sailors from Bulgaria, Georgia, India, the Philippines, Russia, Turkey and Vietnam were “unharmed.”
"We would like to thank the coalition forces who responded quickly, protecting assets in the area and upholding international maritime law,” the company said. It offered no details on how the attackers left the vessel, nor identified them.
The Pentagon told The Associated Press that the vessel was “currently safe” without elaborating on what happened to the attackers. American forces aboard the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Mason responded to the distress call from the Central Park, two U.S. defense officials said on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the incident.
Zodiac described the vessel as being owned by Clumvez Shipping Inc., though other records directly linked Zodiac as the owner. London-based Zodiac Maritime is part of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group. British corporate records listed two men with the last name Ofer as a current and former director of Clumvez Shipping, including Daniel Guy Ofer, who is also a director at Zodiac Maritime.
Yemen's Houthi rebels, who have controlled the capital, Sanaa, since 2014, offered no comment on the seizure. However, Yemen's internationally recognized government, which is based out of nearby Aden, blamed the rebels for the attack in a statement carried by their state-run news agency.
“The Yemeni government has renewed its denunciation of the acts of maritime piracy carried out by the terrorist Houthi militias with the support of the Iranian regime, the most recent of which was the hijacking of the Central Park,” the statement read.
The attack happened in a part of the Gulf of Aden that is in theory is under the control of that government's forces and is fairly distant from Houthi-controlled territory in the country. Somali pirates are not known to operate in that area.
Zodiac Maritime has been targeted previously amid a wider yearslong shadow war between Iran and Israel. In 2021, a drone attack assessed by the U.S. and other Western nations to have been carried out by Iran killed two crew members aboard Zodiac's oil tanker Mercer Street off the coast of Oman.
The British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which provides warnings to sailors in the Middle East, had earlier issued a warning to sailors that “two black-and-white craft carrying eight persons in military-style clothing” had been seen in the area.
The UKMTO put the Central Park's location over 60 kilometers (35 miles) south of Yemen's coast, some 80 kilometers (50 miles) east of Djibouti and around 110 kilometers (70 miles) northeast of Somalia in the Gulf of Aden, a key shipping route.
The Central Park seizure comes after a container ship, CMA CGM Symi, owned by another Israeli billionaire came under attack Friday by a suspected Iranian drone in the Indian Ocean. Iran has not acknowledged carrying out the attack, nor did it respond to questions from the AP about that assault.
Both the Symi and the Central Park had been behaving as if they faced a threat in recent days.
The ships had switched off their Automatic Identification System trackers, according to data from MarineTraffic.com analyzed by the AP. Ships are supposed to keep their AIS active for safety reasons, but crews will turn them off if it appears they might be targeted. In the Central Park's case, the vessel had last transmitted four days ago after it left the Suez Canal heading south into the Red Sea.
Global shipping had increasingly been targeted as the Israel-Hamas war threatens to become a wider regional conflict — even as a truce has halted fighting and Hamas exchanges hostages for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
Earlier this month, the Houthis seized a vehicle transport ship also linked to Israel in the Red Sea off Yemen. The Houthis have repeatedly threatened to attack Israeli ships in the waters off Yemen and have launched drone-and-missile attacks targeting Israel during the war. The Shiite Zaydi rebels’ slogan has long been: “God is the greatest; death to America; death to Israel; curse the Jews; victory to Islam.”
Analysts say such attacks both back its Iranian benefactors as well as bolster the Houthis’ position in Yemen as anger has grown against their rule as the civil war there grinds on without resolution.
Meanwhile Sunday, the American aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower traveled through the Strait of Hormuz and entered the Persian Gulf, the U.S. military said. The Eisenhower was accompanied by the guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea, the guided-missile destroyers USS Gravely and the USS Stethem and the French frigate Languedoc.
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