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18 Dec 2023

UK and US navy vessels shoot down suspected attack drones in Red Sea

UK and US navy vessels shoot down suspected attack drones in Red Sea
UK MOD © Crown copyright 2023
Originally posted on The Guardian / Author: Sammy Gecsoyler

US and UK navy vessels have shot down suspected attack drones targeting shipping vessels in the Red Sea amid Yemeni rebel attacks in the area.

Two of the world’s largest shipping firms, Maersk and Hapag-Lloyd, said they had suspended passage through the Red Sea strait, a vital crossing for global commerce, on Friday.

The Iran-backed Houthis, who control much of Yemen but are not recognised internationally, say they were targeting shipping to pressure Israel during its two-month-old war with Palestinian Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. The maritime tensions have added to fears that the Gaza conflict could spread.

In a statement, the UK defence secretary, Grant Shapps, said: “Overnight, HMS Diamond shot down a suspected attack drone which was targeting merchant shipping in the Red Sea. One Sea Viper missile was fired and successfully destroyed the target.

“The ship recently arrived in the region to bolster international efforts to maintain maritime security.

“The recent spate of illegal attacks represent a direct threat to international commerce and maritime security in the Red Sea. The UK remains committed to repelling these attacks to protect the free flow of global trade.”

A US guided-missile destroyer shot down 14 drones launched by the Houthis in the Red Sea on Saturday, the US Central Command said.

“In the early morning hours of 16 December the US Arliegh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Carney (DDG 64), operating in the Red Sea, successfully engaged 14 unmanned aerial systems launched as a drone wave from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen,” read the statement.

“The UAS were assessed to be one-way attack drones and were shot down with no damage to ships in the area or reported injuries. Regional Red Sea partners were alerted to the threat.”

The German transport company Hapag-Lloyd said it was halting Red Sea container ship traffic until Monday, after the Houthis attacked one of its vessels.

“Hapag-Lloyd is interrupting all container ship traffic across the Red Sea until Monday,” the company said in a statement sent to AFP.

“We have instructed all Maersk vessels in the area bound to pass through the Bab al-Mandab strait to pause their journey until further notice,” it said.

Maersk said this followed a “near-miss incident involving Maersk Gibraltar yesterday” as well as Friday’s attack, in which the rebels struck a Hapag-Lloyd cargo ship in the Red Sea.

A US defence official identified it as the Liberia-flagged Al-Jasrah, a 368-metre (1,207ft) container ship built in 2016.

“We are aware that something launched from a Houthi-controlled region of Yemen struck this vessel, which was damaged, and there was a report of a fire,” the official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity so that he could discuss intelligence matters.

The US Central Command in the Middle East (Centcom) confirmed on X that “a UAV” struck al-Jasrah, causing a fire that was successfully extinguished.

A Hapag-Lloyd spokesperson told Agence-France Presse: “There has been an attack on one of our ships.”

It was en route from the Greek port of Piraeus to Singapore. There were no casualties and the ship was travelling onward to its destination, he added.

Later in the day during a pro-Palestinian rally in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, the rebels said they had attacked two other ships in the area.

“Container ships MSC Palatium and MSC Alanya were targeted by two naval missiles as they were heading toward the Israeli entity,” the Houthi military spokesperson Yahya Saree said in a broadcast on the rebels’ television channel.

The rebels said that, in an earlier attack, the Maersk Gibraltar vessel had been “targeted with a drone and the hit was direct”. According to a US official, the missile missed.

Saree said the attack came after the ship’s crew “refused to respond to the calls of the Yemeni naval services”, and that it was intended as retaliation for the “oppression of the Palestinian people”.

Centcom said the MSC Alanya was only threatened but not struck, while the Palatium was hit by one of two ballistic missiles fired.

In a statement posted on 9 December on social media, the Houthis said they would “prevent the passage” of ships heading to Israel – regardless of ownership – if food and medicine were not allowed into besieged, Hamas-ruled Gaza.

On Tuesday, they claimed responsibility for a missile strike on a Norwegian-flagged tanker.

Last month, they seized an Israel-linked cargo vessel, the Galaxy Leader, and its 25 international crew members.

The attack on the Al-Jasrah occurred near Bab al-Mandab, the narrow strait between Yemen and northeast Africa through which about 20,000 ships pass annually.

The area leads to the Red Sea, Israel’s southern port facilities and the Suez Canal, making it part of a strategic route for Gulf oil and natural gas shipments.

The Houthis have declared themselves part of the “axis of resistance” of Iran-affiliated groups.

Western warships are patrolling the area and have shot down Houthi missiles and drones several times.

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