Pentagon believes Somali individuals carried out attempted hijacking of commercial ship

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An attempted hijacking of a commercial tanker Sunday in the Gulf of Aden was not carried out by Yemeni Houthis and instead appears to have been done by five Somali individuals, the Pentagon’s top spokesperson said Monday.

“We know that they’re not Houthi,” Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters.

The U.S. Navy’s USS Mason on Sunday detained five individuals after it responded to a distress call from the Central Park, a commercial vessel with ties to an Israeli-owned company that was carrying phosphoric acid.

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The five attackers boarded the Liberian-flagged Central Park, managed by Zodiac Maritime, before the Mason arrived and demanded the release of the ship.

The individuals then attempted to flee via a small boat before they were eventually captured, according to a statement from U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM).

CENTCOM did not initially identify the attackers but said two missiles were launched from Houthi-controlled Yemen as the Navy ship was wrapping up a response to the distress call, leaving it open to interpretation that the hijacking could have been linked to the Iran-backed militants.

The missiles landed in the Gulf of Aden approximately 10 nautical miles from the Mason and Central Park. Ryder would not say whether Pentagon officials believe the missiles were targeting the two ships.

Ryder said the Defense Department’s initial assessment is the five individuals are Somali and the incident is “piracy related.” The attackers are currently being held on the Mason, he added.

He also noted there were three vessels belonging to China’s People’s Liberation Army that were also in the vicinity of the Central Park at the time of the attempted hijacking, but the ships “did not respond” to 59 distress calls.

Under international maritime norms and laws, when a ship puts out a distress signal, “all vessels in the vicinity are required to come and help and support,” Ryder said, adding that the Chinese vessels are supposedly in the area as part of a counterpiracy mission.

The incident comes as Iranian proxies have launched numerous attacks at U.S. forces and assets in the Middle East amid the war between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which began Oct. 7.

U.S. officials fear the conflict could widen and consume the region, as Iran and Israel have been involved in a years-long shadow war.

London-based Zodiac Maritime, the company that manages the Central Park, falls under Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer’s larger portfolio.

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