Abandoned tanker Lavant has likely sunk off Yemen, sources say

ATHENS/LONDON (Reuters) - An abandoned tanker that was drifting off Yemen's coast in June has disappeared and is believed to have sunk, three navy and security sources said, the latest vessel lost in the strategically important Red Sea.

The area, on the main shipping route from Europe to Asia, is considered high risk as Yemen's Iran-aligned Houthi militants have launched more than 70 attacks on merchant vessels since October in what they say is solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza.

Maritime security sources said last week the abandoned tanker, the Lavant, was unlikely however to have been targeted by the Houthis. According to two sources, it had reported an engine failure and was taking on water.

Russian shipping group Sovcomflot said last week that one of its vessels, responding to a distress signal, had rescued the crew off the southern Yemeni coast on June 23 after the seafarers had evacuated in a life raft.

Navy and maritime security sources said on Wednesday the Lavant was likely to have sunk after drifting for days. It was unclear if the vessel was carrying fuel onboard. Its owner could not be located for comment.

Houthi militants operating in the Red Sea have so far sunk two vessels, seized another and killed at least three seafarers. They are still holding the kidnapped crew of one ship.

The Verbena cargo ship, attacked by the Houthis with anti-ship cruise missiles last month and abandoned by its crew, remains afloat and is waiting to be salvaged, the sources said separately.

One of the sources said that an armed guard on board had been injured during the attack.

The salvage operation for the Verbena is ongoing, the European Union's naval force in the region told Reuters.

Verbena's owners did not respond to Reuters request for comment.

(Reporting by Renee Maltezou and Yannis Souliotis in Athens, Jonathan Saul in London; Additional reporting by Barbara Erling in Warsaw; Editing by Jan Harvey)