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Suspected Houthi rebel missile sets cargo ship ablaze. Israel intercepts separate attack near Eilat

By Associated Press
Published: February 22, 2024, 10:11am

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A suspected missile attack by Yemen’s Houthi rebels set a ship ablaze in the Gulf of Aden on Thursday as Israel intercepted what appeared to be another Houthi attack near the port city of Eilat, authorities said.

The attacks come as the rebels escalate their assaults over Israel’s war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The attack Thursday in the Gulf of Aden saw two missiles fired, the British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations center said. It said the unnamed ship was ablaze, without elaborating. Later Thursday, the UKMTO said the ship suffered minor damage after the fire and that its crew was safe.

Ship-tracking data analyzed by The Associated Press identified the vessel ablaze as a Palau-flagged cargo ship named Islander. It had been coming from Thailand bound for Egypt and previously sent out messages saying “SYRIAN CREW ON BOARD” to potentially avoid being targeted by the Houthis.

“The missile attack lead to a fire onboard and coalition military assets were responding to the incident,” the private security firm Ambrey said.

The ship’s Liberian-listed owners could not be immediately reached for comment.

The French military separately said it shot down two Houthi drones Thursday in the southern part of the Red Sea.

Meanwhile, sirens sounded early Thursday morning over Eilat, followed by videos posted online of what appeared to be an interception in the sky overhead.

The Israeli military later said the interception was carried out by its Arrow missile defense system.

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Israel did not identify what the fire was, nor where it came from. However, the Arrow system intercepts long-range ballistic missiles with a warhead designed to destroy targets while they are in space.

The system “successfully intercepted a launch which was identified in the area of the Red Sea and was en route to Israel,” the Israeli military said. “The target did not cross into Israeli territory and did not pose a threat to civilians.”

The Houthis did not immediately claim either attack. They typically acknowledge assaults they conduct hours afterward.

Eilat, on the Red Sea, is a key port city of Israel. On Oct. 31, Houthis first claimed a missile-and-drone barrage targeting the city. The rebels have claimed other attacks targeting Eilat, which have caused no damage in the city.

Since November, the rebels have repeatedly targeted ships in the Red Sea and surrounding waters over Israel’s war against Hamas. They have frequently targeted vessels with tenuous or no clear links to Israel, imperiling shipping in a key route for trade among Asia, the Mideast and Europe. Those vessels have included at least one with cargo for Iran, the Houthis’ main benefactor.

Despite a month of U.S.-led airstrikes, Houthi rebels remain capable of launching significant attacks. This week, they seriously damaged a ship in a crucial strait and downed an American drone worth tens of millions of dollars. The Houthis insist their attacks will continue until Israel stops its combat operations in the Gaza Strip, which have enraged the wider Arab world and seen the Houthis gain international recognition.

On Wednesday, ships in the Red Sea off the Houthi-held port city of Hodeida in Yemen reported seeing an explosion, though all vessels in the area were said to be safe, the UKTMO said. The UKMTO earlier reported heavy drone activity in the area.

The U.S. military’s Central Command acknowledged shooting down a Houthi bomb-carrying drone during that time. U.S. airstrikes separately targeted seven mobile anti-ship cruise missiles and one mobile anti-ship ballistic missile prepared to target ships in the Red Sea, Central Command said.

The U.S. State Department criticized “the reckless and indiscriminate attacks on civilian cargo ships by the Houthis” that have delayed humanitarian aid including food and medicine bound for Ethiopia, Sudan and Yemen. That includes the Sea Champion, a ship carrying corn and other aid to both Aden and Hodeida.

“Contrary to what the Houthis may attempt to claim, their attacks do nothing to help the Palestinians,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement. “Their actions are not bringing a single morsel of assistance or food to the Palestinian people.”

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