Ship ablaze in Gulf of Aden as Israel shoots down fire in suspected Houthi attacks

Dubai, United Arab Emirates — Yemen’s Houthi rebels on Thursday launched attacks on both Israel and a ship sailing through the Gulf of Aden, setting the ship on fire and once again demonstrating their ability to carry out attacks despite US-led airstrikes on their forces.

The rebels’ supreme leader, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, announced an “escalation of naval operations” to be carried out by his forces as part of what they described as a pressure campaign to end Israel’s war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. But the Houthis’ targeting has become more indiscriminate since their attacks began in November, endangering a vital waterway for cargo and energy transport from Asia and the Middle East to Europe.

In Thursday’s attack in the Gulf of Aden, two missiles were fired at a Palau-flagged cargo ship called Islander, the US military’s Central Command said. A European naval force in the region described the attack as causing a fire and injuring a sailor aboard the ship, although the ship continued on its way.

The islander had traveled from Thailand on his way to Egypt and previously sent messages reading “SYRIAN CREW ON BOARD” to possibly avoid being targeted by the Houthis. Other ships have similarly sent messages identifying their crews as Muslims or not affiliated with Israel in an effort to avoid rebel attacks.

Meanwhile, sirens sounded over the southern Israeli port city of Eilat early Thursday morning, 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.

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 in space.

The system “successfully intercepted a launch that was identified in the Red Sea area and was heading towards Israel,” the Israeli military said. “The target did not enter Israeli territory and did not pose a threat to civilians.”

Eilat, on the Red Sea, is an important port city of Israel. On October 31, Houthis claimed for the first time a barrage of missiles and drones targeting the city. The rebels have claimed other attacks on Eilat, which caused no damage in the city.

Houthi Brig. General Yahya Saree claimed responsibility for the attacks in a statement late Thursday evening.

The Houthis “remain steadfast in upholding their religious, moral and humanitarian duties to the Palestinian people and in the defense of their beloved Yemen, despite US-British aggression,” Saree said in a pre-recorded statement. “Military operations will not stop unless the aggression stops and the siege on the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip is lifted.”

Saree also claimed a drone attack on a US warship in the region. The Central Command said so and an allied warship shot down six Houthi drones in the Red Sea. The French army claimed to have downed two of the Houthi drones.

Since November, the rebels have repeatedly attacked ships in the Red Sea and surrounding waters due to the war between Israel and Hamas. Those ships include at least one carrying cargo for Iran, the Houthis’ main benefactor, and a relief vessel later bound for Houthi-controlled territory.

Despite a month of US-led airstrikes, the Houthi rebels remain capable of carrying out significant attacks. This week they seriously damaged a ship in a crucial strait and downed a US drone worth tens of millions of dollars. The Houthis insist their attacks will continue until Israel halts its combat operations in the Gaza Strip, which have angered the broader Arab world and won the Houthis international recognition.

Al-Houthi, the rebel leader, gave a televised speech describing an escalation in their attacks.

“Missiles, drones and military boats have been activated and submarine weapons have been introduced into our operations at sea, worrying the enemy,” he said. The Central Command has acknowledged in recent days that it has destroyed an underwater bomb-carrying Houthi drone.

Al-Houthi also denied that its forces allowed some ships to pass through Yemen’s waterways unharmed after paying protection fees.

“The enemy has failed despite our operations at sea,” he said. “He was unable to prevent them, nor could he deter them, nor could he limit or reduce them.”

The Houthis, a Zaydi Shiite group, captured Yemen’s capital in 2014 and have been fighting a Saudi-led coalition since 2015. Their Zaydi people ruled a thousand-year kingdom in Yemen until 1962.

The US State Department has 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. This includes the Sea Champion, a ship that carries corn and other relief supplies to both Aden and Hodeida and was recently targeted.

“Contrary to what the Houthis may try to claim, their attacks do nothing to help the Palestinians,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said in a statement. “Their actions do not bring a single piece of aid or food to the Palestinian people.”

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