December 2, 2023

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U.S. demands immediate release of ship, crew seized by Yemen’s Houthi rebels

The United States on Monday denounced the seizure of a cargo ship in the Red Sea by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi movement as a violation of international law and demanded the immediate release of the vessel and its crew.

“The Houthi seizure of the motor vessel Galaxy Leader in the Red Sea is a flagrant violation of international law,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told a briefing. “We demand the immediate release of the ship and its crew and we will consult with our allies and UN partners as to appropriate next steps.”

The British-owned, Japanese-operated commercial ship was “illegally boarded by military personnel via a helicopter” on Sunday and is now at the Hodeidah port in Yemen, the vessel’s owner said on Monday.

Video shows armed men seizing ship

“All communications were subsequently lost with the vessel,” Isle of Man-based Galaxy Maritime Ltd., the ship’s owner, said in a statement.

An armed man walks on the deck of cargo ship.
A Houthi fighter stands on the Galaxy Leader cargo ship in the Red Sea in this photo released Monday. (Houthi Military Media/Reuters)

“The company, as a shipping concern, will not be commenting further on the political or geopolitical situation,” it said.

Houthis released video footage on Monday showing armed men dropping from a helicopter and seizing the cargo ship in the southern Red Sea, a vessel they described as Israeli.

The Houthis have been launching long-range missile and drone salvoes at Israel in solidarity with the Palestinian Hamas militants fighting in the Gaza Strip.

A man holding up a pistol walks on a cargo ship.
In another photo released by the Houthi rebels, a member of the group that boarded the Galaxy Leader holds up a pistol in the cargo area of the ship. (Houthi Military Media/Reuters)

No Israelis were aboard the Galaxy Leader, operated by Japan’s transport company Nippon Yusen, also known as NYK Line, with crew from the Philippines, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Mexico and possibly Romania.

Japan negotiating with Houthi rebels

Public shipping databases associated the ship’s owners with Ray Car Carriers, a company founded by Abraham Ungar, who is known as one of the richest people in Israel.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said Japan is negotiating with Houthi rebels, while also communicating with Israel and co-operating with the governments of Saudi Arabia, Oman and Iran to achieve the release of the ship and its crew.

A helicopter hovers over a cargo ship as gunmen walk on the ship's deck.
A Houthi helicopter hovers over the Galaxy Leader cargo ship as Houthi fighters walk on the ship’s deck in this photo released Monday. (Houthi Military Media/Reuters)

NYK Line said the Galaxy Leader was seized off the Yemeni coast while heading to India. NYK chartered the ship from its British owner, Galaxy Maritime Ltd. NYK said the ship had no cargo at the time of the hijacking.

“Owners and managers believe the seizure of this vessel represents a gross violation of freedom of passage for the world fleet and a serious threat to international trade,” Galaxy Maritime said.

It added that the “key concern at this time is the safety and security of the 25 crew members currently being held by the perpetrators of this criminal act.”

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