Yemen’s Houthi rebels have released dramatic footage of a hijack involving armed men dropping down from a helicopter onto the deck of an Israeli-linked cargo ship in the southern Red Sea.
The Iran-backed rebel group said it would continue to target ships connected to Israel, adding that they are “treating the ship’s crew in accordance with Islamic principles and values”.
No Israelis were aboard the Bahamas-flagged Galaxy Leader which is operated by a Japanese company with crew members from the Philippines, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine and Mexico, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office earlier said.
The hijack has raised fears that regional tensions heightened by Israel’s war on Hamas are spilling into the seas.
The footage, released by TV channel Al Masirah a day after the ship was hijacked, showed several armed men in black camouflage jumping from the helicopter onto the ship’s deck, before heading towards the helm and taking its 25 crew members hostage.
The Houthi group was quoted by Al-Jazeera as saying that it captured the vessel in response to “heinous acts against our Palestinian brothers in Gaza and the West Bank”.
Israel, however, says the seized ship was British owned and Japanese operated. Japan’s government also confirmed the ship was leased and operated by the Japanese company Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha (NYK Line) and was transporting cars. “We strongly condemn such activity,” said the country’s chief cabinet secretary Hirokazu Matsuno.
The ship is registered in the name of a British company and part-owned by an Israeli businessman, according to reports. Ownership details in public shipping databases associated the ship’s owners with Ray Car Carriers, founded by Abraham “Rami” Ungar, one of Israel richest business tycoons, reported the Associated Press.
Mr Ungar told the agency he was aware of the incident but could not comment as he awaited further details.
Meanwhile, Tehran issued a statement denying involvement in the ship’s seizure, a day after Israel accused Iran of backing the confiscation.
"We have said multiple times that resistance groups in the region act independently and spontaneously based on their interests and that of their people," Iran’s foreign ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said on Monday. Israeli claims were aimed at diverting attention away from Israel’s "irreparable defeat" in its battle against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, he added.
Earlier on Sunday, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office issued a statement referring to the incident as an “Iranian act of terrorism” with consequences for international maritime security.
"This is another Iranian act of terrorism that represents an escalation in Iran’s belligerence against the citizens of the free world, with concomitant international ramifications vis-a-vis the security of global shipping routes," his office said.
The US denounced the move by the Houthi group as a violation of international law and demanded the immediate release of the vessel and its crew.
"The Houthi seizure of the motor vessel Galaxy Leader in the Red Sea is a flagrant violation of international law," State Department spokesperson 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."
Additional reporting from the agencies