Yemen's Houthi rebels fire missiles at ship bound for Iran, their main supporter

This is a locator map for Yemen with its capital, Sanaa. (AP Photo)
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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Yemen’s Houthi rebels fired two missiles at a ship carrying corn bound for a port in Iran on Monday, causing minor damage but no injuries to its crew, authorities said.

The attack on the Marshall Islands-flagged, Greek-operated bulk carrier Star Iris shows just how widely the Houthis now target ships traveling through the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait connecting the two waterways.

The Star Iris had been heading from Brazil to Bandar Khomeini in Iran, the main backer and armer of the Houthis in Yemen's yearslong war.

“The group owner and operator regularly trade bulk cargo with Iran, so this was assessed to be the likely destination,” said Ambrey, a private security firm. Ambrey added that the Star Iris sustained damage to its starboard side in the attack.

The Houthis sought to describe the Star Iris as an “American” vessel, and said they targeted the ship with multiple missiles. The Star Iris' ultimate owner, Star Bulk Carriers Corp. of Athens, Greece, is traded on the Nasdaq Stock Market in New York. It did not respond to a request for comment.

Days earlier, another ship owned by Star Bulk, the Star Nasia, came under attack from the Houthis.

The Houthis' military “will not hesitate to carry out more operations in retaliation to the Zionist crimes against our brothers in the Gaza Strip, as well as in response to the ongoing American-British aggression against our dear country,” Houthi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yahya Saree said in a statement after the attack.

Iran did not acknowledge the Star Iris' destination, though the U.S. military's Central Command did in a statement early Tuesday. Central Command identified its cargo as Brazilian corn bound for Iran. Corn is a major Brazilian export to Iran, likely used in animal feed.

The British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations center, which oversees Mideast waters, reported the attack, saying it happened while the Star Iris was traveling south through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait that separates East Africa from the Arabian Peninsula.

The ship's captain “reports his vessel was attacked by two missiles and reports minor damage,” the UKMTO said. “Vessel and crew are safe. Vessel proceeding to next port of call.”

The attack on the Star Iris follows days in which no Houthi attacks on ships were reported. It's unclear what caused the pause, though the U.S. and British militaries have conducted multiple rounds of airstrikes targeting the Houthis' missile arsenals and launch sites in territory they hold.

Since November, the rebels have repeatedly targeted ships in the Red Sea over Israel’s offensive in Gaza. They have frequently targeted vessels with tenuous or no clear links to Israel, imperiling shipping in a key route for trade among Asia, the Mideast and Europe.