The tanker Central Park
Two missiles landed several miles away from the commercial vessel Central Park in the Gulf of Aden © Zodiac Maritime/AP

Missiles were fired from rebel-controlled territory in Yemen towards an Israeli-affiliated vessel and a US naval destroyer, according to the US military, highlighting the growing threat to ships in one of the world’s most important trade corridors.

The two missiles landed several miles away from the commercial vessel Central Park in the Gulf of Aden and the USS Mason that was responding to its distress call, US central command said in a statement on Monday.

Central Park, a Liberia-flagged oil and chemical products carrier, had earlier been boarded by unknown assailants, according to Centcom. The USS Mason pursued the small boat on which the five attackers fled and secured their surrender.

The Pentagon said later on Monday that the assailants appeared to be Somali pirates, rather than rebels from the Houthi movement that controls a swath of Yemen.

“We’re continuing to assess, but initial indications are that these five individuals are Somali,” said Brigadier-General Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman. “Clearly a piracy-related incident,” he added.

Concerns had arisen that the Central Park incident could have marked another attempt by the Iran-allied rebels to hijack a commercial vessel.

Houthi forces last week used helicopters to board and hijack an Israeli-linked vehicle carrier in the Red Sea and divert it to a nearby port under their control. The operation displayed “a significant increase in the Houthis’ capability to disrupt merchant shipping” and was probably carried out with Iranian involvement, security consultancy Ambrey said.

Central Park’s owner, UK-based Zodiac Maritime, confirmed that the vessel had been attacked by “pirates”, but that all of the crew, the vessel and its cargo were unharmed. Zodiac is controlled by the Ofer family, Israel’s best-known ship owners.

The incident comes amid growing tensions in shipping lanes around the Horn of Africa since Israel launched its war in Gaza last month. The Iran-backed Houthis have warned that they would target Israeli-linked vessels from their heartlands in northern Yemen.

The Houthi threat has combined with shelling from Iran-backed Hizbollah in Lebanon to form an Iranian proxy pincer movement against Israel, raising fears that the contained war in Gaza could spill over into regional conflagration.

In the wake of Israel’s military bombardment of Gaza, the Houthis have also made several attempts to launch long-range ballistic missiles at the southern Israeli city of Eilat, where air defences and US naval vessels have shot down incoming fire.

Saudi Arabia led an Arab coalition to intervene in the Yemeni civil war in 2015 after the Houthis ousted the internationally recognised, Riyadh-allied government from power in the capital Sana’a. A feature of the war was attacks on merchant shipping in the Gulf and Houthi missile strikes against Saudi oil installations and United Arab Emirates commercial infrastructure.

The war also triggered one of the world’s worst man-made humanitarian disasters, killing hundreds of thousands through fighting, malnutrition and disease. About two-thirds of Yemen’s population still require humanitarian assistance, according to the UN.

A fragile truce between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis has held since April last year, with Houthi delegations being hosted in Riyadh for talks seeking to make the ceasefire permanent. A deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, brokered by China, to restore diplomatic relations had also helped to ease Gulf tensions before the Israel-Gaza war broke out.

“Maritime domain security is essential to regional stability,” General Michael Kurilla, Centcom commander, said of the attacks on Monday. “We will continue to work with allies and partners to ensure the safety and security of international shipping lanes.”

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