Japan ‘directly approaching’ Iran-backed Houthi rebels over hijacked cargo ship

Galaxy Leader was seized on Sunday by the Houthis and taken to a Yemeni port
Galaxy Leader was seized on Sunday by the Houthis and taken to a Yemeni port - OWEN FOLEY/REUTERS

Japan’s government said it was “directly approaching” Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels after they hijacked a Japanese-operated cargo ship with dozens of crew on board in the Red Sea.

Galaxy Leader, a car carrier, was seized on Sunday by the Houthis and taken to a Yemeni port.

The rebel group claimed the ship, which is thought to be British-owned, was Israeli.

But on Monday Japanese officials confirmed the vessel was operated by Tokyo-based firm Nippon Yusen and said they were working towards securing its release.

Toyo was communicating with Israel “in addition to directly approaching the Houthis”, Yoko Kamikawa, the foreign minister, said, adding Japan “strongly condemns” the ship’s hijacking.

“We are also urging Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iran and other countries concerned to strongly urge the Houthis for the early release of the vessel and crew members,” he said.

More than 20 crew members are believed to be on the ship including Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Filipino, Mexican and Romanian nationals.

The vessel had been heading toward India from Europe with no cargo, Nippon Yusen said.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, blamed Iran, which backs the Houthis, for the hijacking.

There were no Israelis aboard the ship and Israel was not involved in its ownership or operation, his office said on Sunday.

“This is another Iranian act of terrorism that represents an escalation in Iran’s belligerence against the citizens of the free world, with concomitant international ramifications vis-a-vis the security of global shipping routes,” his office said.

The ship’s Israeli link is believed to stem from its Isle of Man-headquartered parent company, Ray Car Carriers Ltd, which is reportedly a unit of Tel Aviv-incorporated Ray Shipping.

Ray Car Carriers, which operates a fleet of 65 vehicle carriers, was founded by Abraham “Rami” Ungar, one of the wealthiest businessmen in Israel.

Drone salvoes at Israel

The Houthis said on Sunday that the Galaxy Leader had been taken to a port in Yemen and warned all ships owned or operated by Israeli companies, or carrying the Israeli flag, could be targeted in the Red Sea and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.

The group has been launching long-range missile and drone salvoes at Israel in solidarity with Hamas amid the ongoing war in the Gaza Strip. In a statement released online, Mohammed Abdul-Salam, the group’s spokesman, said Israel only understands “the language of force”.

“The detention of the Israeli ship is a practical step that proves the seriousness of the Yemeni armed forces in waging the sea battle, regardless of its costs”, he said. “This is the beginning.”

Nippon Yusen said it had set up a crisis management centre at its offices in Tokyo and was “prioritising” the safety of the vessel’s crew as the situation unfolds.