Houthis Use Sea Drones to Attack Vessels as U.S. Aims to Secure Red Sea

houthis use sea drones to attack vessels as u.s. aims to secure red sea

Crew members on a Greek-owned coal vessel were forced to abandon ship after Yemen’s Houthi rebels launched an attack using a remote-controlled sea drone, according to the U.S. military.

Analysts said it appeared to be the first time the group has successfully used such a device, marking a way for the Iran-backed group to evade U.S.-led efforts to thwart missiles and aerial drones it has been using to attack vessels in the Red Sea.

The crew of a Ukrainian-owned vessel was also forced to abandon ship on Saturday after it was struck by Houthi missiles. The U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for American military operations in the Middle East, said it had destroyed several seaborn explosive devices and an aerial drone launched by the Houthis, as well as onshore radars used to target maritime vessels.

Since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, Iran-backed Houthi rebels have lobbed missiles, drones and other weapons at commercial shipping and warships on an almost daily basis. A U.S.-led Naval coalition has managed to destroy most projectiles targeting maritime traffic. They have also launched strikes at launch sites in Yemen.

The potential loss of two vessels in a matter of days is “marking a significant increase in effectiveness” for the Houthis, British security firm Ambrey said in a note to clients. Ambrey said this was the first attack where the Yemeni group had successfully used a sea drone instead of missiles and aerial drones. It said the nature of the hit caused the engine room to flood.

The Ukrainian-owned Verbena, which was loaded with Malaysian timber, was abandoned Saturday afternoon after its crew was unable to control fires that were started by Houthi missile strikes two days earlier, according to Centcom. Meanwhile, the Tutor, the Greek-owned coal ship, is slowly taking on water following a separate attack by the Iran-backed group, Centcom said.

One crew member was severely injured on the Verbena. A Philippine crew member on the Tutor is still missing.

“This situation cannot go on,” the International Maritime Organization’s secretary-general, Arsenio Dominguez, said Friday. Evalend Shipping and Donbasstransitservice, the owners of the Tutor and the Verbena respectively, didn’t return requests for comment.

So far only a British-owned ship carrying 20,000 tons of fertilizer has sunk since the beginning of the conflict.

More incidents have continued over the weekend. The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations said on Sunday it had received a report of two explosions near a ship transiting near Yemen, though it said the ship had continued its journey safely.

Strikes by the U.S. and its allies on the Houthi arsenal starting in January, and multiple interdictions of shipments from Iran initially disrupted some of the Houthis’ military capacity. In late January, the U.S. seized a large cargo of Iranian weaponry destined for the Houthis, including components for the sort of seaborne devices used in this week’s attack.

Despite these setbacks, the Houthis have been able to find new ways to bring the equipment they need from Iran, Western and Houthi officials said.

Instead of bringing weapons directly from Iran, Yemeni rebels have found a new route through the Eastern African nation of Djibouti, where arms arriving from Iranian ports are transferred to civilian ships, these people said. The Houthis are also using Lebanon as a hub to purchase spare drone parts from China, they said.

Write to Benoit Faucon at [email protected]

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