DUBAI/LONDON (Reuters) -Attacks from Houthi-controlled Yemen struck two Liberian-flagged ships in the Bab al-Mandab Strait on Friday, the U.S. military said, underlining the threat to vessels in shipping lanes being targeted by the Iran-aligned group.
Danish shipping company A.P. Moller-Maersk said it would pause all container shipments through the Red Sea until further notice. German container line Hapag Lloyd said it was considering a similar move.
A drone struck one of the Liberian-flagged vessels, the Al Jasrah, causing a fire which was eventually extinguished, U.S. Central Command said.
Two ballistic missiles were fired by Houthi forces in the second attack, one of which struck the Liberian flagged MSC Palatium III, causing a fire, it added.
A U.S. warship, the Mason, responded to the request from the Palatium III.
Earlier in the day, Central Command said, the MSC Alanya was travelling north in the southern Red Sea and Houthi forces threatened to attack it and told it to turn around and go south.
U.S. forces were not in the area but kept communicating with the vessel and it continued north, the statement added.
“No injuries have been reported by any of the three ships attacked, but this latest round of attacks is yet another demonstration of the great risk to international shipping caused by these Houthi actions,” the Central Command said.
The Houthis said in a statement that they had fired missiles at two ships – the MSC Alanya and MSC Palatium III. Their statement made no mention of Al Jasrah.
An MSC spokesperson said there had been no attack on the Alanya. Asked about the Houthi claim of an attack on the Palatium III, the spokesperson provided no further comment.
The Houthis said both vessels had been heading to Israel. The group has said it wants to support Palestinians as Israeli forces wage war against Iran-aligned Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
However, Alanya and Palatium III both listed Jeddah in Saudi Arabia as their destination, according to data from ship tracking and maritime analytics provider MarineTraffic.
“We will continue to prevent all ships heading to Israeli ports until the food and medicine our people need in the Gaza Strip is brought in,” the Houthi statement said.
“We assure all ships heading to all ports of the world apart from Israeli ports that they will suffer no harm and they must keep their identification device on,” it said.
HOUTHIS FIRINGS DRONES, MISSILES TOWARD ISRAEL
Part of the Iran-aligned “Axis of Resistance”, the Houthis have been attacking vessels in Red Sea shipping lanes and firing drones and missiles at Israel. The Houthis, who rule much of Yemen, have said they would continue their attacks until Israel stops its offensive in the Gaza Strip.
A spokesperson for Hapag-Lloyd, the company that owns Al Jasrah, said it was attacked while sailing near the Yemeni coast. “Hapag-Lloyd will take additional measures to secure the safety of our crews,” the spokesperson said, declining further comment.
British maritime security firm Ambrey said the Liberia-flagged container ship MSC Alanya was ordered to alter course towards Yemen by people aboard a small craft believed to be Houthis, forcing it take evasive measures.
Ambrey said the MSC Alanya was warned by the Houthis not to proceed northbound, and quoted them addressing the crew: “Captain you are not allowed to proceed to the Red Sea. Alter your course to the south side, now”.
Ambrey said the Liberia-flagged, Swiss-owned container ship MSC Palatium III was targeted while sailing northbound some 23 miles southwest of the Mokha, receiving the same warning as the Alanya.
Late on Thursday, the Houthis claimed to have carried out a military operation against a Maersk container vessel, directly hitting it with a drone. The Danish shipping company denied the claim and said the vessel was not hit.
But the company said on Friday it would pause all container shipments through the Red Sea until further notice and send them on a detour around Africa.
“Following the near-miss incident involving Maersk Gibraltar yesterday and yet another attack on a container vessel today, we have instructed all Maersk vessels in the area bound to pass through the Bab al-Mandab Strait to pause their journey until further notice,” the company said in a statement.
Maersk on Thursday said its vessel Maersk Gibraltar was targeted by a missile while travelling from Salalah, Oman, to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and that the crew and vessel were reported safe.
The U.S. Special Envoy for Yemen, Tim Lenderking, said on Thursday that Washington wanted the “broadest possible” maritime coalition to protect ships and signal to the Houthis that attacks would not be tolerated.
Iran warned that the proposed multinational naval force would face “extraordinary problems” and nobody “can make a move in a region where we have predominance”.
(Reporting by Nadine Awadalla, Tala Ramadan, Alexander Cornwell, Jan Choukeir and Nayera Abdallah in Dubai; Jonathan Saul in London; Idrees Ali in Washington; Writing by Nadine Awadalla and Tom Perry; Editing by Christina Fincher, Kirsten Donovan and Grant McCool)