Iran-backed rebels seized an Israeli-linked cargo ship off the coast of Yemen on Sunday, in revenge for what they said were Israeli war crimes in Gaza.
Yemen’s Houthis said they had commandeered the ship in the southern Red Sea and taken it to a Yemeni port with nearly two dozen crew members on board.
Militants used a helicopter to hover above the Galaxy Leader, before rappelling down to the deck while armed, US officials told NBC.
The rebels have been warning for weeks that Israel’s continued bombardment of the Gaza Strip would widen into a regional conflict.
Earlier this month, the Houthis fired several missiles and drones towards Israel, which later claimed to have intercepted them.
Sunday’s attack raises fears the group has established a new angle of attack, after it warned that it would continue to target ships linked to or owned by Israelis until Tel Aviv halts its war against Hamas.
“All ships belonging to the Israeli enemy or that deal with it will become legitimate targets,” the Houthis said.
The Galaxy Leader is flagged in the Bahamas, but is owned by a British company and operated by a Japanese one, according to Israel.
The ship’s Israeli link is believed to stem from the nationality of the billionaire who owns the ship’s parent company, Ray Car Carriers Ltd.
Abraham Ungar, the Israeli billionaire, is listed in public shipping databases as being the company’s owner.
The operating company is Nippon Yusen Kaisha, which chartered the ship to transport cars, according to Nikkei Asia.
Among the 22-member crew were Bulgarians and Filipinos, but no Japanese or Israelis, according to Israel.
The office of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, “strongly condemned” what it said was an Iranian attack.
“The hijacking of the cargo ship by the Houthis in the Red Sea is a very serious event on a global level,” an IDF spokesperson said.
“This is a ship that left Turkey on its way to India with an international civilian crew, without Israelis. This is not an Israeli ship.”
Abdulmalek Al Ajri, a prominent Houthi leader, told The Telegraph that the ship had been seized because of Israel’s “persistence in killing civilians and carrying out genocide and forced displacement in Gaza”.
Yahya Sarea, the spokesman for Yemen’s Houthi rebels, issued a statement after the incident saying that the group would target all ships owned or operated by Israeli companies or carrying the Israeli flag.
“The [Houthi] forces confirm that they will continue to carry out military operations against the Israeli enemy until the aggression against the Gaza Strip stops and the heinous crimes that continue until this moment against our Palestinian brothers in Gaza and the West Bank stop,” he said.
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