DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Yemen’s Houthi rebels seized an Emirati-flagged ship in the Red Sea, officials said Monday, the latest sign of Mideast tensions as hackers targeted a major Israeli newspaper’s website to mark America’s 2020 killing of a top Iranian general.
The seizure of the Rwabee marks the latest assault in the Red Sea, a crucial route for international trade and energy shipments. The Iranian-backed Houthis acknowledged the incident off the coast of Hodeida, a long-contested prize of the grinding war in Yemen.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the hacking of the Jerusalem Post. The hackers replaced the Post's homepage with an image depicting a missile coming down from a fist bearing a ring long associated with Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general killed by a U.S. drone strike in Iraq two years ago.
First word of the Rwabee's seizure came from the British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which only said an attack targeted an unnamed vessel around midnight. The coordinates it offered corresponded to the Emirati-flagged landing craft Rwabee, which hadn’t given its location via satellite-tracking data for hours, according to the website MarineTraffic.com.
A statement from the Saudi-led coalition, carried by state media in the kingdom, acknowledged the attack hours later, saying the Houthis had committed an act of “armed piracy” involving the vessel. The coalition asserted the ship carried medical equipment from a dismantled Saudi field hospital in the distant island of Socotra, without offering evidence.
“The Houthi militia must immediately release the ship, otherwise the coalition forces shall take all necessary measures and procedures to deal with this violation, including the use of force,” Brig. Gen. Turki al-Malki said in a statement.
A Houthi military spokesman, Yahia Sarei, announced that rebel forces had seized what he described as an Emirati “military cargo ship” carrying equipment into Yemen’s territorial waters “without any license” to engage in “hostile acts” against Yemen’s stability. He said the rebels would offer more details on the seizure later.
An employee at the vessel’s owners, Abu Dhabi-based Liwa Marine Services, told The Associated Press that the Rwabee appeared to have been the target but said they had no other information and declined to comment further. The employee did not give her name and hung up.
A similar incident happened in 2016 involving the Emirati vessel SWIFT-1, which had been sailing back and forth in the Red Sea between an Emirati troop base in Eritrea and Yemen. The vessel came under attack by Houthi forces in 2016. The Emirati government asserted the SWIFT-1 had carried humanitarian aid; U.N. experts later said of the claim that they were “unconvinced of its veracity.”
In the attack targeting the Jerusalem Post's website, the image posted by the hackers depicts an exploding target from a recent Iranian military drill designed to look like the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center near the city of Dimona. The facility is already home to decades-old underground laboratories that reprocess the reactor’s spent rods to obtain weapons-grade plutonium for Israel’s nuclear bomb program.
Under its policy of nuclear ambiguity, Israel neither confirms nor denies having atomic weapons.
In a tweet, the Post acknowledged being the target of hackers.
“We are aware of the apparent hacking of our website, alongside a direct threat to Israel,” the English-language newspaper wrote. “We are working to resolve the issue & thank readers for your patience and understanding.”
The newspaper later restored its website. It noted Iran-supporting hackers previously targeted its homepage in 2020 “with an illustration of Tel Aviv burning as then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu swam" with a life preserver.
There was no immediate response from the Israeli government. The hack comes after Israel’s former military intelligence chief in late December publicly acknowledged his country was involved in Soleimani's killing. The U.S. drone killed Soleimani as he was leaving Baghdad's international airport.
In Iraq on Monday, troops shot down two so-called “suicide drones” at the Baghdad airport, American and Iraqi officials said. No group immediately claimed the attack, though one of the drones' wings had words “Soleimani's revenge” painted on it in Arabic. Militias backed by Iran have been suspected in similar assaults. No injuries or damage were reported in the incident.
Iran also did not immediately acknowledge the hack. However, the country has in recent days stepped up its commemorations of the slain Revolutionary Guard general. Memorial services were scheduled to be held Monday for Soleimani.
As the head of the Quds, or Jerusalem, Force of the Revolutionary Guard, Soleimani led all of its expeditionary forces and frequently shuttled between Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. Quds Force members have deployed into Syria’s long war to support President Bashar Assad, as well as into Iraq in the wake of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, a longtime foe of Tehran.
Soleimani rose to prominence by advising forces fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq and in Syria on behalf of the embattled Assad.
U.S. officials say the Guard under Soleimani taught Iraqi militants how to manufacture and use especially deadly roadside bombs against U.S. troops after the invasion of Iraq. Iran has denied that. Many Iranians to this day see Soleimani as a hero who fought Iran’s enemies abroad.
Tensions have been high in the region amid a shadow war between Iran and Israel, as well as the collapse of Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers after then-President Donald Trump in 2018 unilaterally withdrew America from the accord. Negotiations aimed at resuscitating the deal continue in Vienna.
Associated Press writers Isabel DeBre in Dubai, Samy Magdy in Cairo and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed to this report.