Houthi spokesman says the group’s fighters have hijacked the ship, allegedly owned by an Israeli businessman.
Yemen’s Houthis say they have taken control of an Israeli-owned ship in the southern Red Sea, with Israel describing the incident as an “Iranian act of terrorism” with implications for international maritime security.
A Houthi military spokesman confirmed to Al Jazeera on Sunday that its fighter jets hijacked the British-owned and Japanese-operated cargo ship.
At least 22 people were on board the Galaxy Leader – reported to be partly owned by an Israeli businessman – which was traveling from Turkey to India.
“We have received confirmation from a Houthi official that they hijacked this ship. Earlier today [Sunday], they announced the beginning of operations to attack ships flying the Israeli flag. They warned international sailors not to work for such companies,” says Al Jazeera’s Mohammed al-Attab, reporting from Yemen’s capital, Sanaa.
“We are treating the crew in accordance with Islamic norms and principles,” Yemen’s Houthi military spokesman Yahya Saree said in a statement later Sunday.
He renewed the warning that any ship belonging to Israel or those supporting it will be a legitimate target for Houthi forces.
“We confirm our continuation of military operations against [Israel] until the aggression and heinous crimes against our Palestinian brothers in Gaza and the West Bank stop,” Saree said.
The Houthis, backed by Tehran, have launched several missile and drone strikes against Israel since the latest assault on the besieged Gaza Strip began on October 7, killing more than 12,300 Palestinians, including 5,000 children.
“The Houthis have carried out a number of attacks on Iranian targets. We expect more attacks in the coming days,” al-Attab said.
The Israeli government called the hijacking “a very serious event on a global scale”, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office saying Israel was not involved in the ship’s ownership, operation or the composition of its international crew.
“This is yet another act of Iranian terrorism that represents an escalation in Iran’s warfare against the citizens of the free world, with simultaneous international consequences regarding the security of global shipping lanes,” said a statement released by the prime minister’s office.
“There were no Israelis on the ship,” it said, adding that the 25 crew members are from, among other countries, Ukraine, Mexico, the Philippines and Bulgaria.
Israel’s military also denied that the ship was Israeli. In a statement on X, it said: “The hijacking of a cargo ship by the Houthis near Yemen in the southern Red Sea is a very serious incident with global consequences.”
“The ship left Turkey bound for India, manned by civilians of various nationalities, not including Israelis. It is not an Israeli ship,” the Israeli army said.
A US defense official said the US is “aware of the situation and is monitoring it closely”.
“What we understand is that the shipping company is partly owned by an Israeli businessman, and it would not be the first time one of his ships was intercepted. In 2021, one of his vessels was also targeted,” said Al Jazeera’s Sara Khairat, reporting from occupied East Jerusalem.
Al Jazeera’s Dorsa Jabbari, reporting from Tehran, said there has been no evidence provided by Israel that Iran is behind the hijacking.
“This is an accusation made by the Israeli prime minister’s office without any concrete evidence to support it,” she said.
The war in Gaza has sent tensions soaring in the region, with international organizations and political leaders warning of a potential wider regional conflict.
“Iran has in the past distanced itself from these various armed groups in the Middle East that are against Israel,” Jabbari said.
“But given Israel’s continued bombardment of Gaza and what they call ‘genocide’ against the Palestinian population, the Iranians say the conflict could spread.”