Two cargo ships are hit by missiles fired from Houthi-rebel territory in Yemen and set ablaze

A ballistic missile fired from rebel-held territory in Yemen has hit a Liberian-flagged cargo ship in the Red Sea near the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, setting the vessel ablaze, a US defence official has said.

The official – who spoke on the condition of anonymity – identified the vessel as the MSC Palatium III and said it remained unclear if anyone was hurt in the attack. 

Friday’s missile was apparently targeting the Al Jasrah, another cargo ship struck by a projectile earlier in the day. 

The attacks further escalate a campaign by Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who have claimed responsibility for a series of missile assaults in recent days that just missed shipping in the Red Sea and its strategic Bab el-Mandeb Strait.

The attacks are a response to the Israel-Hamas war and the pounding air-and-ground offensive targeting the Gaza Strip, though the links to the ships targeted in the rebel assaults has grown more tenuous – or nonexistent – as the attacks continue.

A ballistic missile fired from rebel-held territory in Yemen has hit a Liberian-flagged cargo ship in the Red Sea near the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, setting the vessel ablaze, a US defence official has said. Pictured: Houthi fighters are seen waving Palestinian flags in Yemen, December 2

Private intelligence firm Ambrey also confirmed the earlier attack on the Al Jasrah.

‘The projectile reportedly hit the port side of the vessel and one container fell overboard due to the impact,’ Ambrey said.

‘The projectile caused a ‘fire on deck’ which was broadcast via’ radio.

The British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO), which monitors Middle East shipping lanes, also acknowledged the first attack, warning vessels to exercise caution. 

The UKMTO said there had been no reported casualties from the attack on the Al Jasrah – which is operated by German-based shipper Hapag-Lloyd.

The firm also said no crew member had been hurt in the attack.

‘Hapag-Lloyd will take additional measures to secure the safety of our crews,’ the company said, without elaborating.

MSC, the vessel’s operator, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen did not immediately acknowledge the attack.

It was not clear if the attack involved a drone or a missile.

Ambrey noted that Hapag-Lloyd ‘is known to have offices in the Israeli ports of Ashdod, Haifa and Tel Aviv’.

On Thursday, the Houthis fired a ballistic missile that missed a container ship travelling through the strait.

The day before that, two missiles fired from Houthi-held territory missed a commercial tanker loaded with Indian-manufactured jet fuel near the key Bab el-Mandeb Strait.

Also near the strait, a missile fired by Houthis on Monday night slammed into a Norwegian-flagged tanker in the Red Sea.

Global shipping has increasingly been targeted as the Israel-Hamas war threatens to become a wider regional conflict – even during a brief pause in fighting during which Hamas exchanged hostages for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

The collapse of the truce and the resumption of a punishing Israeli ground offensive and airstrikes on Gaza have raised the risk of more sea attacks.

The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is only 18 miles wide at its narrowest point, limiting traffic to two channels for inbound and outbound shipments, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

Nearly 10% of all oil traded at sea passes through it, while an estimated one trillion US dollars (£780 billion) in goods pass through the strait annually.

In November, Houthis seized a vehicle transport ship linked to Israel in the Red Sea off Yemen. The rebels still hold the vessel near the port city of Hodeida.

Separately, a container ship owned by an Israeli billionaire came under attack by a suspected Iranian drone in the Indian Ocean.

A separate, tentative ceasefire between the Houthis and a Saudi-led coalition fighting on behalf of Yemen’s exiled government has held for months despite that country’s long war.

That has raised concerns that any wider conflict in the sea – or a potential reprisal strike from Western forces – could reignite those tensions in the Arab world’s poorest nation.

Also on Thursday, unknown attackers boarded the Malta-flagged bulk carrier Ruen, managed by Navigation Maritime Bulgare, in the Arabian Sea off the Yemeni island of Socotra, Ambrey and the UKMTO said.

Bulgarian media said the ship’s 18-member crew hailed from Angola, Bulgaria and Myanmar.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the assault.

On Friday, the UKMTO issued a warning to shippers, saying the security manager for the Ruen ‘believes the crew no longer has control of the vessel’ and it is heading towards Somalia.

Somali piracy had dropped in recent years but there has been growing concern it could resume amid the wider chaos of the Houthi attacks and the political uncertainty gripping Somalia.