Houthi Rebels Capture Ship in Red Sea: First Helicopter Attack on a Vessel Reported
In a shocking development on Monday, Houthi rebels released a video showcasing their helicopter-borne raid on the Galaxy Leader, a Bahamian-flagged vehicle carrier transiting the Red Sea. The rebels still hold the ship and its 25 crew members, marking the first Houthi helicopter attack on a vessel, according to a U.S. military official.
The video begins with a Houthi Mi-171Sh variant transport helicopter, equipped with UB-32 rocket pods and a PKM light machine gun at the door, flying towards the ship. The helicopter, with the black, red, white, and green Palestinian flag, as well as the red, white, and black Houthi flag, flies low over the ship from stern to bow. It then lands briefly, allowing at least seven armed Houthi fighters to board the Galaxy Leader before taking off.
The armed rebels, carrying AK-47 variants, make their way towards the bridge. They enter the bridge and capture at least three crew members. The video also shows one rebel in a cargo hold, waving a pistol and shouting “Allahu Akbar (God is good).”
The footage reveals that the Houthis, who seized the Yemeni Air Force’s fleet of aircraft in 2015, have acquired the skills to conduct a helicopter raid on a vessel at sea during the day, even in moderate sea conditions.
The incident occurred on Sunday around 1 p.m. local time, according to NBC. Initial reports suggested that the Houthis boarded the ship by rappelling from a helicopter, but this video does not capture that particular infiltration or it may be inaccurate.
The Houthis claim that they targeted the vessel due to its connection to Israel and have vowed to continue attacking ships in international waters linked to or owned by Israelis until Israel ends its campaign against Gaza’s Hamas rulers.
Initial reports indicated that the ship was Israeli-owned. However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office clarified that the vessel was British-owned and that no Israelis were on board. Ownership details in public shipping databases associated the ship’s owners with Ray Car Carriers, a company founded by Abraham “Rami” Ungar, one of the wealthiest men in Israel. Ungar stated that he was aware of the incident but could not provide further comments at the moment.
The captain and first mate of the Galaxy Leader are Bulgarians, while the vessel’s Japanese operator, NYK Line, confirmed that the ship had no cargo at the time of the hijacking. The crewmembers come from the Philippines, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, and Mexico.
Japan condemned the hijacking and is working with the rebels for the ship’s release. Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno stated that the Japanese government is negotiating with the Houthi rebels for the early release of the crew. Japan is also coordinating with Israel, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Iran.
A U.S. military official strongly condemned the Houthi militants’ seizure of the Galaxy Leader, calling it a flagrant violation of international law. The official demanded the immediate release of the ship and its crew and mentioned consultations with allies and UN partners for appropriate next steps.
This incident is the latest in a series of Houthi rebel activities since the start of the Israel-Gaza conflict in October. Previously, the USS Thomas Hudner, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, downed a Houthi drone launched from Yemen in the Red Sea. The Houthis have also targeted the USS Carney destroyer with land attack cruise missiles and drones. In addition, they shot down a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone over the Red Sea. The rebels continue to launch missiles, drones, and attacks on targets in Israel in response to Israeli operations in Gaza.
The Houthi rebels’ ability to conduct helicopter raids on ships demonstrates their determination and increased threat to shipping. In the past, they targeted ships belonging to the Saudi-led coalition they are at war with, but those attacks were mainly carried out using rockets, missiles, and drone boats.
Sunday’s raid video bears a resemblance to Iran’s April 2023 attack on a U.S.-bound oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman. The footage from that incident showed Iranian naval forces rappelling from a helicopter to seize the ship.
The extent of Iran’s training provided to the Houthis for such missions is unknown. However, the fact that the rebels can now raid ships by helicopter raises concerns. The international response to this situation is still developing, with ongoing talks between Japan and the Houthi rebels.