UK struggles to prove Houthis attacked its trade ships

Foreign Office says only one British merchant vessel was targeted by Houthis before the RAF bombed Yemen. And it was registered in the Cayman Islands.

23 January 2024

Yemenis protest against UK/US air strikes and in support of Palestine. (Photo: Ansarallah / Telegram)

Rishi Sunak’s claim to be bombing Yemen in “self-defence” looks shaky after it emerged that only one British-flagged commercial ship was previously attacked by the Houthis.

That was the Swan Atlantic, an oil tanker registered in the Cayman Islands tax haven and owned by a Norwegian company with an Indian crew. 

A ship tracking website had mistakenly labelled it as an Israeli-managed vessel, prompting the attack on 18 December. 

It qualifies as a “British ship” because the Cayman Islands are a UK overseas territory.

Ships registered there fly the Cayman flag: a union jack on a red background with the Islands’ pineapple and turtle-tipped crest.

After ordering air raids on Yemen, Sunak repeatedly said: “Doing nothing would send a dangerous message that British vessels…are fair game”.

Following those air raids, the Houthis vowed to extend their blockade on Israeli vessels to all US and UK shipping, putting British mariners at greater threat than before.

Flags of convenience

Foreign minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan told parliament yesterday that nine commercial vessels with “British links” had been affected by the Houthis up to 17 January.

Other than the Swan Atlantic, which was hit by a drone, none were British-flagged. They were registered in the Bahamas, Panama, Liberia, Malta and the Marshall Islands.

These small states provide “flags of convenience” for thousands of ships due to their low regulation, but lack a blue water navy to protect them.

Ultimate ownership of commercial vessels is notoriously complex, with interested parties often deliberating trying to mask their stakes.

Vessels may be chartered to another company for a voyage and the crew can come from anywhere, usually poor places like the Philippines.

Just two ships affected by the Houthis are understood to have had British personnel onboard.

The RMT union, which represents seafarers, said it wasn’t aware of any attacks on British merchant vessels.

‘British links’

Trevelyan said the Galaxy Leader, a car carrier, was among those with “British links” that was impacted by the Houthis. 

It is the only vessel to have been successfully hijacked by the group. None of the crew were British, nor were they harmed.

Galaxy Leader is registered in the Bahamas and owned by a company in the Isle of Man, Ray Car Carriers’ Galaxy Maritime.

It is ultimately owned by Israeli shipping mogul Rami Ungar.

The Houthis say it was targeted solely because of this Israeli connection, and prominently displayed Palestinian flags throughout the operation.

Sunak and Labour leader Keir Starmer both bizarrely insisted today that the Houthi blockade of Israeli-linked shipping has no connection with the genocide in Gaza.

The Prime Minister has also claimed he is “not bombing Yemen”, but only “Houthi military sites that were launching attacks on civilian shipping.”

Spiral of violence

Trevelyan’s list of British linked vessels also included the Maltese-registered container ship, CMA CGM Tage, whose French owners denied any such attack had even happened. It is unclear what connection to Britain the ship had.

Another vessel she counted was Green Trader, an oil products tanker that reported a “suspicious approach” on 18 December. However it did not develop into an attack.

A further ship mentioned by Trevelyan, the Bahamas-registered Al Marrouna, has not publicly reported being threatened.

The Foreign Office declined to clarify further when asked by Declassified.

Five of the ‘British-linked’ vessels were targeted by drones and missiles, which either missed, were shot down or resulted in little or no damage. No crew were injured.

A British warship in the Red Sea, HMS Diamond, did come under attack from Houthi drones on 9 January.

But it is part of Operation Prosperity Guardian, a US-led naval task force specifically set up to counter the Houthis. The convoy had killed 10 Houthi fighters a week earlier.

Sunak largely used the attack on HMS Diamond to justify RAF air strikes in Yemen on 11 January, describing them as “self-defence”.

‘You are the aggressors’

The jets took off from a UK base in Cyprus, 1,500 miles away. It was such a long flight that they required aerial refuelling. 

The Royal Air Force conducted further strikes in Yemen last night, again taking off from a base on Cyprus.

The head of the Houthi Supreme Revolutionary Committee, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, said: “Your strikes will only increase the strength and determination of the Yemeni people to confront you, because you are the aggressors against our country.”

Peace activists in Cyprus, where 3% of the Mediterranean island remains occupied by Britain following independence in 1960, have vowed to hold protests at the base if it keeps being used to bomb Yemen.

Last week, US president Joe Biden admitted that airstrikes on Yemen would not stop the Houthis. The White House has redesignated them as a terrorist organisation, despite their role as Yemen’s de facto government.

Houthis control Yemen’s capital, its second largest port, and the areas in which the majority of the population live. Their blockade of Israeli-linked shipping has bridged deep domestic political divides and boosted their popularity across the Arab world.

The president of Yemen’s UN-recognised government lives in Saudi Arabia. His regime claims its legitimacy from an election in which only one candidate stood and whose mandate expired in 2014.

Sunak is the ninth British PM to use the RAF to bomb Yemen. UK defence secretary Grant Shapps has used the operations in the Red Sea to highlight a £405 million investment on new missiles for the Royal Navy.