Houthi rebels hit US-owned cargo ship in Gulf of Aden

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Iran-backed Houthis struck a US-owned cargo ship on Monday, the first direct assault on a commercial vessel since American and British forces launched multiple strikes against the Yemeni rebels last week.

The missile attack on the Gibraltar Eagle in the Gulf of Aden will increase concerns about the safety of ships transiting through the Middle East’s waterways even as the US seeks to deter the Houthi militants through military action.

The Houthis have already severely disrupted maritime trade through the Red Sea after carrying out about 30 attacks on commercial vessels since November. The US and UK retaliated on Friday by launching a barrage of missiles and bombs targeting the group’s drone, missile, radar and air surveillance capabilities in Yemen. American forces launched a second raid on Saturday.

The Houthis have vowed to respond aggressively and to continue targeting ships, which they say is in response to Israel’s offensive against Hamas, the Palestinian militant movement, in Gaza.

The US military said the Houthis fired an anti-ship ballistic missile at the Gibraltar Eagle, which is owned by Connecticut-based Eagle Bulk Shipping, at 4pm local time. The ship, which was carrying steel products, reported no serious damage.

The attack marked the first time a ship has been hit by a missile in the Gulf of Aden rather than the far narrower southern part of the Red Sea.

Two hours earlier, US forces had detected another anti-ship missile fired towards shipping lanes in the Red Sea, where the Houthis have concentrated their attacks. The US said the projectile failed and crashed on land.

Eagle Bulk Shipping, which is listed on the US’s Nasdaq exchange, said in a statement that its vessel had been hit by an “unidentified projectile” while approximately 100 miles offshore in the Gulf of Aden, the body of water separating Yemen from Somalia.

“As a result of the impact, the vessel suffered limited damage to a cargo hold but is stable and is heading out of the area,” the company said.

The Galaxy Leader commercial ship, anchored off the coast of al-Salif, Yemen, was seized by Houthi rebels last month. Such occurrences have deterred shipping companies from using the Red Sea route © Khaled Abdullaj/Reuters

The frequency of the attacks on shipping has caused many commercial vessels to avoid the Red Sea, which accounts for about 15 per cent of global seaborne trade, and instead take a far longer route around Africa. The disruption to maritime trade has raised concerns that it will filter through to energy prices and inflation.

Dry bulk carriers such as the Gibraltar Eagle have mostly continued to transit through the Red Sea, however. Tankers carrying liquefied natural gas (LNG) carriers have also diverted less than other vessel types. Signs are growing though that vessels transporting LNG are starting to avoid transiting the route. Such arrivals at the mouth of the Red Sea were down by around 47 per cent in early January.

Three vessels carrying LNG for Qatar’s state-owned Qatar Energy, which had been due to enter the Red Sea, stopped short on Monday and circled off the shore of Oman.

The tankers had temporarily paused their transit while QatarEnergy took stock of the situation, a person briefed on the matter said. The person added that the tankers could proceed along the route at any time.

Flex LNG, operator of the Flex Volunteer, an LNG carrier that had been due to sail through the affected area, said on Monday that the vessel’s charterers had ordered it to divert via the Cape of Good Hope.

Should Qatar, one of the world’s top exporters of LNG, decide to divert its gas cargoes meant for Europe around the Cape of Good Hope, around nine extra days would be added to its voyage, said Alex Froley, LNG market analyst at ICIS.

Analysts said the Houthis, a battle-hardened group which has endured a more than eight-year war against a Saudi-led coalition, were unlikely to be deterred by US and UK strikes against them.

They said the traditionally pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel and anti-US movement would seek to exploit the attacks to boost their legitimacy in Yemen and the wider region, where Israel’s offensive on Gaza has triggered outrage.