An Israeli-linked cargo ship hijacked by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels has been spotted off the coast of Yemen in satellite images.
The Galaxy Leader commercial ship was ‘illegally boarded by military personnel via a helicopter’ on November 19, the vessel’s owner said on Monday, and is now in the Hodeidah port area in Yemen, the images show.
The Houthis released dramatic footage on Monday showing heavily armed men dropping from a helicopter and seizing the cargo ship in the southern Red Sea.
In the clip, Gunmen approached the bridge with their weapons drawn as crew members held up their hands in surrender. One of the fighters was filmed walking through the ship while shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’.
The cargo ship was intercepted as it travelled past the Arabian peninsula en-route to India after leaving Turkey. It now appears to have come to a stop off the coast of Yemen, which is around 1,000 miles south of Israel.
An Israeli-linked cargo ship hijacked by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels has been spotted off the coast of Yemen in satellite images (pictured)
The Galaxy Leader commercial ship was ‘illegally boarded by military personnel via a helicopter’ on November 19 and is now in the Hodeidah port area in Yemen, the images show, confirming what the vessel’s owner said on Monday
It is registered under a British company which is partially owned by Israeli tycoon Abraham Ungar and is currently leased out to a Japanese company.
There is concern for the Bahamas-flagged Galaxy Leader’s crew, which Galaxy Maritime said is made up of nationals from Bulgaria, Ukraine, the Philippines, Mexico and Romania. The vessel is chartered by Japan’s Nippon Yusen.
Galaxy Maritime said: ‘Owners and managers believe the seizure of this vessel represents a gross violation of freedom of passage for the world fleet and a serious threat to international trade.
It added that the ‘key concern at this time is the safety and security of the 25 crew members currently being held by the perpetrators of this criminal act’.
Japan said yesterday it had directly approached the Houthis over the ship.
Analysts have said the incident highlights the danger now lurking in one of the world’s key shipping routes as the Israel-Hamas war rages, as well as the rebels’ tactics mirroring those of its chief sponsor, Iran.
It also comes amid concerns that the Israel-Hamas war could spark a wider conflict in the region, involving more countries and militarised groups.
The Houthis have also fired rockets towards Israel since the conflict broke out last month, which Israel said at the time it had intercepted.
While Tehran has denied aiding the Yemen rebel group in launching their attack on Sunday, the ship – before the assault – passed by an American-sanctioned Iranian cargo vessel suspected as serving as a forward spying base in the Red Sea.
The rebels, dressed commando-style in bulletproof vests carrying assault rifles, covered each other and moved in military formation before quickly seizing control of the bridge of the Galaxy Leader.
While their body-camera footage serves as a propaganda coup to bolster their own position in Yemen amid some protests against their rule, it also signals a new maritime front has opened in a region long focused on the Persian Gulf and its narrow mouth at the Strait of Hormuz.
It also puts new pressure on commercial shippers travelling through those waters, threatens to increase insurance costs that will get passed onto consumers and likely further stretches the US Navy as it tries to serve as the region’s security guarantor.
‘This has all the signs these people were trained by a professional military, which could clearly be Iran,’ an American defence official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
‘This looks like something we haven’t seen before.’
The Houthis released dramatic footage on Monday (pictured) showing heavily armed men dropping from a helicopter and seizing the cargo ship in the southern Red Sea
Footage filmed by the rebels shows them approaching the Bahaman-flagged ‘Galaxy Leader’ ship in the southern Red Sea via helicopter yesterday, with several heavily-armed fighters being dropped off on deck (pictured above)
Several heavily armed rebels crossed the ship and approached the bridge with weapons drawn
The Bahamas-flagged Galaxy Leader’s crew is made up of nationals from Bulgaria, Ukraine, the Philippines, Mexico and Romania, Galaxy Maritime said. The vessel is chartered by Japan’s Nippon Yusen. Concerns remain for the safety of the crew
The Houthi rebels approached the bridge with their guns drawn as crew members on the bridge can be seen holding up their hands in surrender
One of the fighters was filmed walking through the ship shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ (pictured)
The United States also denounced the ship’s seizure as a breach of international law and demanded the immediate release of the vessels and its crew.
‘The Houthi seizure of the motor vessel Galaxy Leader in the Red Sea is a flagrant violation of international law,’ US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told a briefing. ‘We demand the immediate release of the ship and its crew and we will consult with our allies and UN partners as to appropriate next steps.’
It’s not just the US and Israel suspecting Iranian involvement, however.
The risk intelligence firm RANE referred to the tactics employed by the Houthis as reminiscent of those used by Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard when seizing vessels in the past over years of tensions regarding Tehran’s collapsed nuclear deal with world powers.
Ambrey, a private intelligence firm, similarly referred to the operation as an ‘Iranian-style vessel seizure’ that ‘provides the Houthis with a negotiation lever’ in much the same way Hamas’ taking of some 240 hostages in their Oct. 7 attack on Israel did.
‘The incident displayed a significant increase in the Houthis’ capability to disrupt merchant shipping,’ Ambrey said. ‘In the past, the Houthis had only used sea mines, missiles and remote-controlled improvised explosive devices in the Red Sea.’
It added: ‘The sophistication of the operation suggests that Iranian involvement is highly likely.’
The Galaxy Leader, linked to Israeli billionaire Abraham ‘Rami’ Ungar, also passed by the Iranian cargo vessel Behshad before the attack Sunday, according to satellite imagery first reported by the firm Tanker Trackers.
The cargo ship (pictured) travelled south past the Arabian peninsula on its way to India, but was intercepted by the gunmen. It is registered under a British company which is partially owned by Israeli tycoon Abraham Ungar
The Behshad has been in the Red Sea since 2021 off Eritrea’s Dahlak archipelago.
It arrived there after Iran removed the Saviz, another suspected spy base in the Red Sea that had suffered damage in an attack that analysts attributed to Israel amid a wider shadow war of ship attacks in the region.
Iran, for its part, denied Monday having anything to do with the attacks.
‘Those accusations are void, and a result of the complicated situation the Zionist regime is struggling with,’ Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said.
‘We have said many times that resistance groups in the region represent their own countries and people, and they make decisions based on the interests of their own countries and nations.’
However, Hamas has Iran as one of its main sponsors.
The Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, another Iranian-backed group, has engaged in cross-border fire for weeks with Israel.
Iraqi militias have claimed drone attacks on US bases there. Syria, another Iranian beneficiary, has launched sporadic attacks too.
It remains unclear just how much control the Iranians exert over the Houthis.
However, the rebel group has seen its ballistic missile and drone program rapidly advance despite being targeted by a yearslong United Nations arms embargo.
Analysts attribute that to Iranian weapons shipments, of which some have been previously seized by the US and allied navies.
Houthi weapon sophistication has grown in other ways as well.
The Houthis have been able to fly this year a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet over the capital, Sanaa, during a military parade, along with a Northrop F-5 Tiger combat aircraft at another.
A Houthi parade also saw Soviet-era Mil Mi-17 helicopters flying through the sky – the same helicopter used in Sunday’s attack.
A Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis had targeted Yemen’s air force with airstrikes at the start of the war and the Houthis have yet to explain how they got these aircraft flying again.
The Houthis also have shot down an American MQ-9 Reaper drone during the Israel-Hamas war with a surface-to-air missile, as well as have fired drones and missiles toward Israel.
All of this makes the Red Sea, which stretches from Egypt’s Suez Canal down to the Bab el-Mandeb Strait separating East Africa from the Arabian Peninsula, increasingly dangerous for shipping. That narrow strait, some 18 miles across at its tightest point, is crucial for cargo and energy shipments.
According to the most recent publicly-available tracking data, the ship was last seen to the east of Port Sudan on Saturday
The US has sent more vessels into and through the Red Sea, including the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier and its strike group.
The Eisenhower is now in the Gulf of Oman, according to satellite images, meaning there are fewer US Navy assets in the Red Sea to deter any possible new attacks.
And if the next attack sees fatalities – particularly of US or Israeli nationals – that raises the risk of a wider war breaking out on the seas.
‘Significant Houthi interference with commercial shipping through the Strait is almost certain to trigger US intervention due to the political and potentially economic implications,’ the New York-based Soufan Center warned.