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US naval forces recover hijacked Israel-linked ship

During the rescue operation, two ballistic missiles were fired towards the USS Mason from areas controlled by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Zodiac Maritime's "Central Park" vessel. Source: Screenshot.
Zodiac Maritime's "Central Park" vessel. Source: Screenshot.

The USS Mason and allied ships have recovered the Israel-linked Central Park tanker, which an “unknown entity” hijacked in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Yemen, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) confirmed on Monday.

During the rescue operation, five armed hijackers attempted to flee in a small boat and were detained by the U.S. Navy. The 22-member crew of the Central Park was uninjured, according to CENTCOM.

Concurrently, two ballistic missiles were fired towards the USS Mason from areas controlled by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The missiles fell 10 nautical miles (11.5 statute miles) away from the vessel, causing no injuries or damage.

“Maritime domain security is essential to regional stability,” said Gen. Michael Erik Kurilla, CENTCOM commander. “We will continue to work with allies and partners to ensure the safety and security of international shipping lanes.”

The Zodiac Maritime ship management company, part of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group, had called the attack on the Central Park “a suspected piracy incident.”

“We would like to thank the coalition forces who responded quickly, protecting assets in the area and upholding international maritime law,” said Zodiac Maritime on Monday.

According to the company, the Turkish-captained vessel has a multinational crew consisting of Russian, Vietnamese, Bulgarian, Indian, Georgian and Filipino nationals.

The ship is carrying phosphoric acid.

It wasn’t immediately clear who was behind the hijacking. Aden is held by forces allied to Yemen’s internationally recognized government and a Saudi-led coalition fighting Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

According to global maritime risk management firm Ambrey, the hijackers had threatened to attack the Central Park if it did not divert to the Red Sea port city of Al-Hudaydah, which is controlled by the Houthis.

On Friday, an Iranian drone attacked an Israeli-owned commercial vessel in the Indian Ocean. The attack on the CMA CGM Symi container ship came a week after Houthi rebels hijacked an Israeli-linked ship in the Red Sea.

Yemen’s Houthis hijack the Galaxy Leader on the Red Sea, Nov. 19, 2023. Source: Twitter.

On Nov. 19, the Israel Defense Forces confirmed that the Houthis hijacked the Bahamian-flagged Galaxy Leader vehicle carrier, calling it a “very grave incident of global consequence.”

“The ship departed Turkey on its way to India, staffed by civilians of various nationalities, not including Israelis. It is not an Israeli ship,” the military added. The Galaxy Leader is registered by a British company partially owned by Israeli tycoon Abraham Ungar.

“This is another act of Iranian terrorism and constitutes a leap forward in Iran’s aggression against the citizens of the free world, with international consequences regarding the security of the global shipping lanes,” the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem said.

Iran-backed Houthis hijack a ship on the Red Sea, Nov. 19, 2023. Source: Screenshot.

Israel has bolstered its naval presence in the Red Sea area following repeated missile and drone attacks from Yemen.

The IDF said that missile boats were deployed “in accordance with the assessment of the situation, and as part of the increased defense efforts in the region.”

On Nov. 9, Houthi rebels fired a ballistic missile at Eilat, which was intercepted by Israel’s Arrow 3 in the aerial-defense system’s first operational use.

On Oct. 31, Israel’s Arrow 2 air defense system for the first time intercepted a surface-to-surface missile fired from the Red Sea area.

Additionally, dozens of U.S. troops have been wounded in more than 60 attacks by Iranian-backed proxies in Iraq and Syria since Oct. 17, according to the Pentagon.

In response, the United States has on at least three occasions struck Iran-linked sites in Syria, confirming on Tuesday that it had conducted retaliatory military activity in Iraq for the first time.

Last month, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin ordered the USS Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean. The announcement came just after Austin completed his visit to Israel where he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

In a statement, Austin said that this was being done “as part of our effort to deter hostile actions against Israel or any efforts towards widening this war following Hamas’s attack on Israel.”

The Strike Group includes the guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea, guided-missile destroyers USS Gravely and USS Mason, and Carrier Air Wing 3, with nine aircraft squadrons, and embarked headquarters staffs.

The Eisenhower CSG joined the USS Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group, which includes the USS NormandyUSS Thomas Hudner, USS Ramage, USS Carney and USS Roosevelt.

The U.S. Air Force has also deployed to the region squadrons of F-15, F-16 and A-10 fighter aircraft.

The Eisenhower CSG subsequently transited the Suez Canal and proceeded to the Gulf of Oman, near the Strait of Hormuz.

“The increases to U.S. force posture signal the United States’ ironclad commitment to Israel’s security and our resolve to deter any state or non-state actor seeking to escalate this war,” said Austin.

Yisrael Beytenu Party head Avigdor Liberman on Monday urged a stronger response to Houthi attacks and also to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

“The State of Israel can’t be a punching bag, and everything that is going on with the Houthis is insufferable. And the government of Israel has decided to ignore this event,” Liberman said in reference to the previous day’s attempted hijacking.

“Everything that’s going on in the north is unacceptable,” the opposition member said about attacks by Hezbollah. He called for Israel to push the Iranian-backed terror group north of the Litani River in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701.

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