JERUSALEM : Yemen’s Houthi rebels seized an Israeli-linked cargo ship in a crucial Red Sea shipping route on Sunday, raising fears that regional tensions heightened over the Israel-Hamas war were playing out on a new maritime front, according to Israel.
There was no immediate comment from the Houthis, an Iran-backed rebel movement in Yemen that threatened earlier Sunday to target Israeli-linked vessels in the Red Sea. Last month, Houthi rebels were suspected of sending missiles and drones over the crucial shipping lane of the sea.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said 25 crew members of various nationalities, including Bulgarians, Filipinos, Mexicans and Ukrainians but no Israelis, had been on board the hijacked Bahamas-flagged ship.
Netanyahu’s office condemned the seizure of the Galaxy Leader, a vehicle carrier, as an “Iranian act of terror.” The Israeli military called the hijacking a “very grave incident of global consequence.”
AP showed the Galaxy Leader traveling in the Red Sea southwest of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, more than a day ago. The vessel had been in Korfez, Turkey, and was on its way to Pipavav, India, at the time of the seizure reported by Israel.
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, which was 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.
The complex world of international shipping often involves a series of management companies, flags and owners stretching across the globe in a single vessel.
A ship linked to Ungar experienced an explosion in 2021 in the Gulf of Oman. Israeli media blamed it on Iran at the time.
It had its Automatic Identification System tracker, or AIS, switched off, the data showed. Ships are supposed to keep their AIS active for safety reasons, but crews will turn them off if it appears they might be targeted or to smuggle contraband, which there was no immediate evidence to suggest was the case with the Galaxy Leader.
The British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which provides warnings to sailors in the Persian Gulf and the wider region, put the hijacking as having occurred some 150 kilometers (90 miles) off the coast of Yemen’s port city of Hodeida, near the coast of Eritrea.
The Red Sea, stretching from Egypt’s Suez Canal to the narrow Bab el-Mandeb Strait separating the Arabian Peninsula from Africa, remains a key trade route for global shipping and energy supplies. That’s why the U.S. Navy has stationed multiple ships in the sea since the start of the Israel-Hamas war on Oct. 7.
An American defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media, said US military officials were tracking an incident involving the Galaxy Leader after its alleged hijacking.
Since 2019, a series of ships have come under attack at sea as Iran began breaking all the limits of its tattered nuclear deal with world powers. As Israel expands its devastating campaign against Hamas in the besieged Gaza Strip following the militant group’s unprecedented attack on southern Israel, fears have grown that the military operations could escalate into a wider regional conflict.
The Houthis have repeatedly threatened to target Israeli ships in the waters off Yemen.