Long-range Houthi strike in Arabian Sea raises concerns over rebel capabilities

a Houthi fighter celebrates in front of what they said debris of an American MQ9 aerial vehicle, shot down by the air defence in Saada, 26 April 2024
a Houthi fighter celebrates in front of what they said debris of an American MQ9 aerial vehicle, shot down by the air defence in Saada, 26 April 2024 Copyright Houthi Media Office via AP
Copyright Houthi Media Office via AP
By Euronews with AP
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A Portuguese-flagged ship has been hit far out in the Arabian sea, raising concerns about the attack capabilities of Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.


A Portuguese-flagged container ship was hit by a drone in the far reaches of the Arabian Sea, corresponding with a claim by Yemen's Houthi rebels that they assaulted the ship there, authorities said on Tuesday.

The attack on the ship, MSC Orion, occurred some 600 kilometres off the coast of Yemen and appeared to be the first confirmed deep-sea assault claimed by the Houthis since they began targeting ships in November. 

It suggests the Houthis — or potentially their main benefactor, Iran — might be able to strike deep into the Indian Ocean.

The attack happened last Friday, according to the Joint Maritime Information Centre, which operates as part of the US-led Combined Maritime Forces in the Mideast. After the attack, the crew discovered debris apparently from a drone on board, the centre said.

The ship, which was bound for Oman, “sustained only minor damage and all crew on board are safe,” the centre said. 

MSC Orion has been associated with London-based Zodiac Maritime, which is part of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group. 

It was operating on behalf of the Mediterranean Shipping Co, an Italy-based firm. The Joint Maritime Information Centre reported the ship was likely targeted due to its perceived Israeli affiliation.

Brigadier General Yahya Saree, a military spokesman for Yemen's Houthi rebels, claimed the attack on the Orion early on Tuesday. He did not explain why it took the rebels days to acknowledge the attack.

Uncertainty over Houthi's means

The attack immediately raised questions about how the Houthis could have carried out an assault hundreds of kilometres from the shores of Yemen on a moving target. 

Their primary area of attack so far has been in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the narrow Bab el-Mandeb Strait that connects the two waterways key for international trade. Those are close to Yemen's shoreline — unlike the site of the MSC Orion attack.

The Houthis are not known to operate an expeditionary naval fleet, nor do they have access to satellites or other sophisticated means of controlling long-distance drones.

Iran, which has been supplying the Shiite rebels in their years-long war in Yemen, has been assessed by the West and experts to have been behind at least one complex attack claimed by the Houthis — the 2019 attack on Saudi Arabia's oil fields that temporarily halved the kingdom's energy production. 

Tehran also routinely operates military vessels in the Arabian Sea and just seized the Portuguese-flagged MSC Aries and its crew just before its unprecedented drone-and-missile attack on Israel on 13 April.

Iranian state media uniformly reported the Houthis' claim of carrying out the attack on the Orion. Iran's mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment.

The Houthis say their attacks on shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden are aimed at pressuring Israel to end its war against Hamas in Gaza, which has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians there. The war began after Hamas-led militants attacked Israel on 7 October, killing 1,200 people and taking some 250 others hostage.

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