Armed assailants seized and later let go a tanker linked to Israel off the coast of Yemen on Sunday before being apprehended by the United States Navy, officials said.
Two ballistic missiles fired from Houthi-controlled Yemen then landed near a U.S. warship in the Gulf of Aden, raising the stakes amid a series of ship attacks linked to the Israel-Hamas war.
Yemen's internationally recognized government blamed the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels for the attack, though the rebels in control of the capital, Sanaa, did not acknowledge either the seizure or the missile attack.
The attackers seized the Liberian-flagged Central Park, managed by Zodiac Maritime, in the Gulf of Aden, the company, the U.S. and British militaries and private intelligence firm Ambrey said.
Early Monday morning, Zodiac said the vessel carrying phosphoric acid and its crew of 22 sailors from Bulgaria, Georgia, India, the Philippines, Russia, Turkey and Vietnam were “unharmed.”
"We would like to thank the coalition forces who responded quickly, protecting assets in the area and upholding international maritime law,” the company said.
The U.S. military's Central Command said in a statement early Monday that its forces, including the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Mason, responded to the seizure and demanded the armed assailants release the tanker.
“Subsequently, five armed individuals debarked the ship and attempted to flee via their small boat,” Central Command said. “The Mason pursued the attackers resulting in their eventual surrender.”
The Central Command did not identify the men, but said a missile launch from Houthi-controlled Yemen followed early Monday morning.
“The missiles landed in the Gulf of Aden approximately ten nautical miles from the ships,” the statement said. “The USS Mason … was concluding its response to the M/V Central Park distress call at the time of the missile launches. There was no damage or reported injuries from either vessel during this incident.”
Zodiac described the vessel as being owned by Clumvez Shipping Inc., though other records directly linked Zodiac as the owner. London-based Zodiac Maritime is part of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group. British corporate records listed two men with the last name Ofer as a current and former director of Clumvez Shipping, including Daniel Guy Ofer, who is also a director at Zodiac Maritime.
Yemen's internationally recognized government, which is based out of nearby Aden, blamed the rebels for the seizure in a statement carried by their state-run news agency.
“The Yemeni government has renewed its denunciation of the acts of maritime piracy carried out by the terrorist Houthi militias with the support of the Iranian regime, the most recent of which was the hijacking of the Central Park,” the statement read.
The attack happened in a part of the Gulf of Aden that is in theory under the control of that government's forces and is fairly distant from Houthi-controlled territory in the country. Somali pirates are not known to operate in that area.
Zodiac Maritime has been targeted previously amid a wider yearslong shadow war between Iran and Israel. In 2021, a drone attack assessed by the U.S. and other Western nations to have been carried out by Iran killed two crew members aboard Zodiac's oil tanker Mercer Street off the coast of Oman.
The British Military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which provides warnings to sailors in the Middle East, had earlier issued a warning to sailors that “two black-and-white craft carrying eight persons in military-style clothing” had been seen in the area.
The UKMTO put Central Park's location over 60 kilometers south of Yemen's coast, some 80 kilometers east of Djibouti and around 110 kilometers northeast of Somalia in the Gulf of Aden, a key shipping route.
The Central Park seizure comes after a container ship, CMA CGM Symi, owned by another Israeli billionaire, came under attack Friday by a suspected Iranian drone in the Indian Ocean. Iran has not acknowledged carrying out the attack, nor did it respond to questions from the AP about that assault.
Both the Symi and the Central Park had been behaving as if they faced a threat in recent days.
The ships had switched off their Automatic Identification System trackers, according to data from MarineTraffic.com analyzed by the AP. Ships are supposed to keep their AIS active for safety reasons, but crews will turn them off if it appears they might be targeted. In the Central Park's case, the vessel had last transmitted four days ago after it left the Suez Canal heading south into the Red Sea.
Global shipping had increasingly been targeted as the Israel-Hamas war threatens to become a wider regional conflict — even as a truce has halted fighting and Hamas exchanges hostages for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
Earlier this month, the Houthis seized a vehicle transport ship also linked to Israel in the Red Sea off Yemen.
Meanwhile on Sunday, the American aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower traveled through the Strait of Hormuz and entered the Persian Gulf, the U.S. military said. The Eisenhower was accompanied by the guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea, the guided-missile destroyers USS Gravely and the USS Stethem and the French frigate Languedoc.