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Houthi rebels hijack Israeli-linked ship

JERUSALEM (AP) – Yemen’s Houthi rebels seized an Israeli-linked cargo ship in a crucial Red Sea shipping route on Sunday and took its 25 crew members hostage, officials said, raising fears that regional tensions heightened over the Israel-Hamas war were playing out on a new maritime front.

The Iran-backed Houthi rebels said they hijacked the ship over its connection to Israel and would continue to target ships in international waters that were linked to or owned by Israelis until the end of Israel’s campaign against Gaza’s Hamas rulers.

“All ships belonging to the Israeli enemy or that deal with it will become legitimate targets,” the Houthis said.

The Houthis’ chief negotiator and spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Salam, later added in an online statement that the Israelis only understand “the language of force”.

“The detention of the Israeli ship is a practical step that proves the seriousness of the Yemeni armed forces in waging the sea battle, regardless of its costs and costs,” he added. “This is the beginning.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office had blamed the Houthis for the attack on the Bahamas-flagged Galaxy Leader, a vehicle carrier affiliated with an Israeli billionaire. It said no Israelis were on board.

The Galaxy Leader is seen at the port of Koper, Slovenia. PHOTO: AP

The ship’s Japanese operator, NYK Line, said the vessel had no cargo at the time of the hijacking. Its crewmembers are from the Philippines, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine and Mexico, NYK said.

Japan on Monday condemned the hijacking. Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said the Japanese government was doing its utmost for an early release of the crew through negotiations with Houthi rebels, while also communicating with Israel and cooperating with the governments of Saudi Arabia, Oman and Iran.

The Houthis said they were treating the crew members “in accordance with their values”, but did not elaborate on what that meant.

Netanyahu’s office condemned the seizure as an “Iranian act of terror”. The Israeli military called the hijacking a “very grave incident of global consequence.”

Israeli officials insisted the ship was British-owned and Japanese-operated. However, ownership details in public shipping databases associated the ship’s owners with Ray Car Carriers, founded by Abraham “Rami” Ungar, who is known as one of the richest men in Israel.

Ungar told The Associated Press he was aware of the incident but couldn’t comment as he awaited details. A ship linked to him experienced an explosion in 2021 in the Gulf of Oman. Israeli media blamed it on Iran at the time.

International shipping often involves a series of management companies, flags and owners stretching across the globe in a single vessel.

Two United States (US) defence officials confirmed that Houthi rebels seized the Galaxy Leader in the Red Sea on Sunday afternoon local time. The rebels descended on the cargo ship by rappelling from a helicopter, the officials said, confirming details first reported by NBC News.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to publicly discuss the matter.

Twice in the last month, US warships have intercepted missiles or drones from Yemen that were believed to be headed toward Israel or posing a threat to American vessels. The USS Carney, a Navy destroyer, intercepted three land attack cruise missiles and several drones that were launched by Houthi forces toward the northern Red Sea last month.