Yemen’s Houthis said on Tuesday they hit a Norwegian commercial tanker with a missile in their latest protest against Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, underlining the risks of a conflict that has shaken the Middle East.
The Iran-aligned group attacked the tanker, the STRINDA, because it was delivering crude oil to an Israeli terminal and after its crew ignored all warnings, Houthi military spokesperson Yehia Sarea said in a statement.
But the tanker’s owner, Norway’s Mowinckel Chemical Tankers, said the vessel was headed to Italy with a cargo of biofuel feedstock, not crude oil. But it did acknowledge a tentative Israeli port call scheduled for January, details it had not offered in the immediate hours after the attack in the Red Sea.
“Upon the recommendation of our security advisors, it was decided to withhold this information until the vessel and her crew were in safe waters,” the company said in a statement.
Following the attack, Israel’s military said it had deployed one of its most advanced warships, a Sa’ar 6 class corvette, in the Red Sea.
The U.S. Navy destroyer Mason responded to the STRINDA’s distress calls and assisted the crew, which was grappling with a fire, the U.S. military said. It said the STRINDA was struck on Monday night by a land-based cruise missile fired from Houthi-controlled Yemen.
“The actions that we’ve seen by these Houthis forces are destabilizing, they’re dangerous,” Pentagon spokesperson Major General Patrick Ryder told a press conference on Tuesday.
“So, this is an international problem that requires an international solution,” Ryder said. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin would be travelling to the Middle East next week, including to Israel, Qatar and Bahrain, he said.
The Houthis have waded into the Israel-Hamas conflict – which has spread around the region – attacking vessels in vital shipping lanes and firing drones and missiles at Israel more than 1,000 miles from their seat of power in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa.
On Saturday, they said they would target all ships heading to Israel, regardless of their nationality, and warned international shipping companies against dealing with Israeli ports.
GAZA WAR RIPPLES THROUGH REGION
The Gaza conflict has already spread to other parts of the region, with Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah trading fire and Iranian-backed militias attacking bases of U.S. forces in Iraq.
French frigate FREMM Languedoc intercepted and destroyed a drone that was threatening the STRINDA in a complex aerial attack originating from Yemen, the French defence ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.
The STRINDA had loaded vegetable oil and biofuels in Malaysia and was headed for Venice, data from shiptracking firm Kpler showed. Italian energy firm Eni confirmed the ship was carrying 15 thousand tons of residues and waste from vegetable oil processing destined for Eni’s biorefineries in Italy.
Houthi officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment. There was no immediate comment from the Israeli government.
The Houthi spokesman said the group would continue blocking ships heading to Israeli ports until Israel allows the entry of food and medical aid into the Gaza Strip. Israel denies restricting the entry of food, water, medicines and shelter into the Gaza Strip, which its forces have bombarded in retaliation against Hamas for the Oct. 7 attack.
US SHIP RESPONDS TO STRINDA
Norway’s deputy foreign minister Eivind Vad Petersson said in a statement: “Norway condemns in the strongest possible terms all attacks on civilian shipping.”
The attack took place about 60 nautical miles (111 km) north of the Bab al-Mandab Strait connecting the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden at about 2100 GMT, a U.S. official told Reuters. A second U.S. official said the STRINDA was able to move under its own power in the hours after the attack.
“There were no U.S. ships in the vicinity at the time of the attack, but the (U.S. Navy destroyer) USS MASON responded to the M/T STRINDA’s mayday call,” the U.S. military’s Central Command, which oversees American forces in the Middle East, said in a statement posted on social media platform X.
The attack caused damage but no casualties, the U.S. military said.
The Houthi spokesman said that the group had managed to obstruct the passage of several ships in recent days, acting in support of the Palestinians.
The Houthis are one of several groups in the Iran-aligned “Axis of Resistance” that have been taking aim at Israeli and U.S. targets.
During the first week of December, three commercial vessels came under attack in international waters, prompting a U.S. Navy destroyer to intervene.
Last month the Houthis also seized a British-owned cargo ship that had links with an Israeli company.
The United States and Britain have condemned the attacks on shipping, blaming Iran for its role in supporting the Houthis. Tehran says its allies make their decisions independently.
Saudi Arabia has asked the United States to show restraint in responding to the attacks.