A laden chemical tanker controlled by Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Maritime was boarded by pirates or suspected Houthi rebels on Sunday after apparently being pursued for two days while sailing south in the southern Red Sea.
A few hours after the incident, it emerged that the vessel was freed after prompt intervention by Western naval forces.
The 20,000-dwt Central Park (built 2015) was boarded in the Gulf of Aden on the morning of 26 November by people from a boat that came alongside. The ship’s 22 crew members are believed to have retreated to the secure citadel for safety.
Zodiac told TradeWinds it was working closely with “coalition naval assets in the region” to resolve what it believed was a “suspected piracy incident”.
According to updated information sent by Zodiac a few hours later, at midnight London time, the ship was free and undamaged and its crew were safe.
“Zodiac … is pleased to confirm that its managed vessel, the Liberian-flagged chemical tanker Central Park … is safe and all of the crew, the vessel and cargo are unharmed,” a press representative for the company said.
“The suspected pirates who boarded the vessel earlier today have now left the vessel.
“We would like to thank the coalition forces who responded quickly, protecting assets in the area and upholding international maritime law.”
US Central Command said in a tweet that the destroyer USS Mason, with allied ships from the coalition counter-piracy task force TF 151 and associated aircraft, responded to a distress call from the tanker on Sunday after it reported being under attack by an unknown entity.
“Upon arrival, coalition elements demanded release of the vessel. Subsequently, five armed individuals debarked the ship and attempted to flee via their small boat,” the tweet said.
“The Mason pursued the attackers resulting in their eventual surrender.”
In the early hours of Monday, two ballistic missiles were then fired from Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen towards the general location of the USS Mason and Central Park, the US Central added.
They landed in the Gulf of Aden 10 nautical miles (18.5 km) from the ships.
“Maritime domain security is essential to regional stability,” said General Michael Erik Kurilla, US Central Command commander. “We will continue to work with allies and partners to ensure the safety and security of international shipping lanes.”
Doubts about piracy
Despite Zodiac’s statement that its ship was a victim of piracy, marine security expert Ambrey Analytics said evidence suggested the incident was “likely linked to state actors”, even though their identity has not been confirmed.
Ambrey also reported an attempt to spin the incident into a Western conspiracy.
“The apparent failure to take control of the vessel aligned with the report of a Hezbollah-aligned Lebanese outlet that dismissed the event later that evening,” Ambrey said.
The Lebanese report was quoted as saying: “The reports regarding the capture of an Israeli ship in the Gulf of Aden off the Yemeni coast are entirely questionable … sources warned against the real intentions behind releasing these reports, stressing that they are either an Israeli fabrication or a ploy to force the deployment of foreign forces.”
Piracy attacks are nowadays rare in the region, and it would be highly coincidental if this latest incident was one, a maritime security expert told TradeWinds.
It is the third incident in a week involving Israeli-linked ships in a period of heightened tensions in the Middle East after Israel invaded Gaza in response to a Hamas terrorist attack.
The Central Park is ultimately owned by Israeli-born Eyal Ofer. Ships belonging to fellow Israeli billionaires Abraham “Rami” Ungar and Idan Ofer were hit by separate incidents in the last week.
On Friday, the Eastern Pacific Shipping-owned, 15,300-teu container ship CMA CGM Symi (built 2022) was hit by a suspected Iranian-made kamikaze drone in the Indian Ocean, according to the AP news agency, citing a US defence official.
Last weekend, the Ray Car Carriers-owned Galaxy Leader was hijacked after militants were dropped by helicopter. It was taken to Yemen’s Hodeidah port, where the crew are reported to be captive.
The latest incidents mark an upsurge in the shadow war being fought by the Iran-backed, pro-Palestinian Houthis against Israeli interests over the past two years in which at least four ships have been attacked and two people killed.
Early on Sunday morning, a security team from Ambrey on a nearby vessel overheard the Central Park report: “We are under piracy attack” and “Pirates on board.”
Another Ambrey team later reported hearing the vessel had been “attacked by pirates, already on board”, the security group said.
A US Navy warship asked other merchant vessels to stay clear of the area, Ambrey reported.
London-based Zodiac’s own statement late on Sunday confirmed that the Central Park issued a distress call that it was under attack by pirates at 6am UTC (0600 GMT) as it was sailing about 54 nautical miles off the coast of Somalia.
The Turkish-captained vessel has a crew of Russian, Vietnamese, Bulgarian, Indian, Georgian and Filipino nationals. It is carrying a full cargo of phosphoric acid.
The saga appears to have begun early the previous day and about 190 nautical miles further north on the tanker’s journey through the Red Sea and into the Gulf of Aden, Ambrey said.
On Saturday, a warning message from Yemeni Houthi rebels to the Central Park was overheard threatening to “attack” the vessel if it did not alter course to Hodeidah port, suggesting the Houthis intended to seize the ship.
A US destroyer nearby, the USS Thomas Hudner, instructed the tanker to disregard all transmissions from the Houthi “Yemeni Navy”, Ambrey said.
The US ship advised the Central Park to continue at full speed and perform evasive manoeuvres.
The Central Park’s AIS has been off since 22 November, when it sailed southbound through the Suez Canal.
It was early on Sunday morning that the ship was finally boarded.
Another incident early on Sunday morning involving an unrelated vessel with a red hull similar to the Central Park may suggest Houthis were searching for the tanker.
Ambrey reported that a Marshall Islands-flagged bulk carrier was approached by two black and white skiffs 47 nautical miles off Aden in south Yemen carrying eight individuals wearing military uniforms.
After the ship altered course and armed guards on board displayed their weapons and shouted warnings, the skiffs stopped the pursuit.