The Iranian-backed Houthi rebels on Monday released a video showing Sunday’s helicopter-borne raid on the Galaxy Leader, a Bahamian-flagged vehicle carrier transiting the Red Sea. The Houthis still hold the ship and its 25 crew members. A U.S. military official told The War Zone it is believed to be the first Houthi helicopter attack on a ship.
The video opens with a view of a Houthi Mi-171Sh variant transport helicopter with what appear to be UB-32 rocket pods and a PKM light machine gun at the door flying toward the vessel. The helicopter - bearing the black, red, white and green Palestinian flag and the red, white and black Houthi flag - flies low over the ship stern to bow and then lands just long enough for at least seven armed Houthi fighters to jump out and board the Galaxy Leader before the helicopter flies off.
The commandos, armed with AK-47 variants, move out toward the bridge.
They approached, entered it and took at least three crew members there captive.
The video then cuts to one of the rebels in a cargo hold waving a pistol in his right hand and yelling "Allahu Akbar (God is good)."
The video shows that the Houthis, who captured the Yemeni Air Force’s fleet of aircraft in 2015, have developed the skills to at least conduct a helicopter raid of a vessel at sea during the day in a moderate sea state.
The incident took place about 1 p.m. local time Sunday, according to NBC. Initial reporting said that the Houthis boarded the ship by repelling from a helicopter, but that’s either wrong or another infil that was not captured on this video.
The Houthis said they were attacking the vessel over its connection to Israel and would continue to target ships in international waters that were linked to or owned by Israelis until the end of Israel’s campaign against Gaza’s Hamas rulers, according to The Associated Press.
“All ships belonging to the Israeli enemy or that deal with it will become legitimate targets,” the Houthis said.
Initial reports said that the ship was Israeli-owned.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office had blamed the Houthis for the attack on the ship but said the vessel was British-owned and that no Israelis were on board.
While Israeli officials insisted the ship was British-owned and Japanese-operated, ownership details in public shipping databases associated the ship’s owners with Ray Car Carriers, according to The Associated Press. That's a company founded by Abraham “Rami” Ungar, who is known as one of the richest men in Israel.
Ungar told The Associated Press he was aware of the incident but couldn’t comment as he awaited details. A ship linked to him experienced an explosion in 2021 in the Gulf of Oman. Israeli media blamed it on Iran at the time.
Authorities confirmed Monday that the captain and the first mate on the Galaxy Leader were Bulgarians.
The ship’s Japanese operator, NYK Line, said the vessel had no cargo at the time of the hijacking, according to The Associated Press. Its crewmembers are from the Philippines, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine and Mexico, NYK said.
Japan on Monday condemned the hijacking and said it was working with the rebels for its return, the BBC reported. Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said the Japanese government was doing its utmost for an early release of the crew through negotiations with Houthi rebels, while also communicating with Israel and cooperating with the governments of Saudi Arabia, Oman and Iran.
"The Houthi militants’ seizure of the motor vessel Galaxy Leader in the Red Sea is a flagrant violation of international law," a U.S. military official told The War Zone Monday. "We demand the immediate release of the ship and its crew. We will consult with our allies and UN partners as to appropriate next steps.”
This is the latest in a series of incidents involving the Houthi rebels since the outbreak of the latest Israel-Gaza war on Oct. 7.
On Nov. 15, the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Thomas Hudner downed a drone launched from Yemen while in the Red Sea. One official told us that it was a Houthi drone directly attacking the vessel. As we reported last month, the Arleigh-Burke class destroyer USS Carney destroyed four Houthi land attack cruise missiles and nearly 20 drones. On Nov. 8, the Houthis also shot down a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone over the same body of water. The rebel group has also been firing cruise and ballistic missiles and launching drones at targets in Israel in response to that country's ongoing operations in the Gaza Strip.
This latest incident involving the Houthis shows they have no intention of backing down and that they have the increased their ability to threaten shipping, something they've been doing for years.
In the past, the Houthis carried out several attacks on ships belonging to the Saudi-led coalition that its been at war with. As we wrote previously, however, those attacks were claimed to be carried out by rockets, missiles and drone boats.
The video from Sunday's raid is reminiscent of an April 2023 raid by Iran on a U.S.-bound oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman. Footage from that incident showed Iranian naval forces rappelling from a helicopter to seize the ship.
The level of training the Houthis have received from Iran on these types of missions is unknown, though the fact that Houthis can now raid ships by helicopter raises the stakes. Other than reported ongoing talks between Japan and the Houthis, the international response to this situation is still evolving.
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