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Attackers release Israel-linked tanker seized off Yemen

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Attackers seized and later let go a tanker linked to Israel off the coast of Yemen on Sunday, authorities said. Yemen’s internationally recognised government blamed the Iranian-backed Houthis for the attack, which followed at least two other recent maritime attacks linked to the Israel-Hamas fighting.

The attackers seized the Liberian-flagged Central Park, managed by Zodiac Maritime, in the Gulf of Aden, the company and private intelligence firm Ambrey said. An American defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, also confirmed to The Associated Press that the attack took place.

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.

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 recognised 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 US military’s Central Command and the Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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 targetted previously amid a wider yearslong shadow war between Iran and Israel. In 2021, a drone attack assessed by the US 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 kilometres south of Yemen’s coast, some 80 kilometres east of Djibouti and around 110 kilometres 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 analysed 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 in the Red Sea off Yemen.

Meanwhile Sunday, the American aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower traveled through the Strait of Hormuz and entered the Persian Gulf, the US 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.

In an undated photo released by Zodiac Maritime, the tanker Central Park is seen. PHOTO: AP