Unlock the Editor’s Digest for free
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Houthi rebels in Yemen on Friday fired a missile that set fire to a ship carrying Russian refined oil for the commodities trader Trafigura, as the Iran-backed militants stepped up their attacks on commercial and military vessels in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.
The Houthi attack on the Marlin Luanda, a petroleum products tanker in the Gulf of Aden, was the first to hit a commercial vessel since the US and UK combined on a second set of strikes against the militants, who have caused major disruption to global trade by targeting a critical route.
The Houthis earlier on Friday fired an anti-ship ballistic missile at the USS Carney, a US navy vessel in the Gulf of Aden. US Central Command said the Carney had successfully shot the missile down.
A statement by Yahya Saree, the Houthis’ spokesman, said the group had targeted the Marlin Luanda, which it described as a “British oil ship”. While the vessel was operating on behalf of Trafigura, its registered owner is Oceonix Services, a company based in the City of London.
The attack appears to have been the most damaging so far of the 30-plus attempted by the Houthis against commercial ships since November. Most have caused only minor damage or small, quickly extinguished fires.
Trafigura, a leading commodities trader, said the Marlin Luanda had been “struck by a missile”.
“Firefighting equipment on board is being deployed to suppress and control the fire caused in one cargo tank on the starboard side,” the Singapore-based company said.
“We remain in contact with the vessel and are monitoring the situation carefully. Military ships in the region are under way to provide assistance.” The company added that the vessel was carrying “Russian origin” Naphtha, an oil product, which it said had been purchased below the price cap on the country’s oil set by international sanctions.
The UK Maritime Trade Operations office said that five hours after the incident, which happened at 4.42pm London time, the vessel remained on fire.
“Coalition warships are in attendance and supporting the vessel,” the organisation added. “All crew are reported safe.”
The Houthis say they are acting in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza after Israel in October declared war on Hamas, the militant group which controlled the enclave.
The Yemeni rebels originally said they were only targeting vessels linked to Israel, although many of those affected had no apparent link to the Jewish state.
The Houthis have since extended their target list to include ships linked to the US and UK. Many shipping industry executives had assumed, based on a Houthi promise not to attack Russian and Chinese ships, that vessels carrying cargo heading to or from Russia or China would enjoy some degree of protection.
Attacks on vessels off Yemen’s coast have prompted many shipping companies to flee the region.
Arrivals of container ships in the area in recent weeks have been 90 per cent down on levels in early November, according to Clarksons, a shipping services group.
Most are instead taking a longer route round the Cape of Good Hope, which has significantly increased journey times and costs.
On Wednesday, the Houthis fired at least three missiles towards two US-flagged container ships, the Maersk Detroit and Maersk Chesapeake, as they were heading through the Bab-el-Mandeb, at the mouth of the Red Sea.
The vessels, part of a fleet of 20 US-flagged vessels carrying almost exclusively US government cargo, were accompanied by the USS Gravely, a US naval ship. The Gravely shot down two of the missiles, while another fell into the sea.
Maersk, the world’s second largest container shipping line, said it would no longer send its US-flagged fleet through the area. The Copenhagen-based company’s other vessels have been travelling via the Cape of Good Hope since December.
The combined US and UK attacks on Monday against the Houthis were aimed at curtailing the group’s efforts to disrupt shipping through the Red Sea, and involved hitting eight locations in Yemen.
The US and the UK first combined on strikes against the Houthis earlier in the month.