US forces sailed to the rescue of an Israeli-affiliated cargo ship after it was hijacked off the coast of Yemen on Sunday, officials said.
The MV Central Park, a commercial freighter carrying phosphoric acid, had been sailing through the Gulf of Aden when it was boarded by five armed men.
The crew locked themselves in the control room and issued a distress call, drawing in a nearby American task force led by USS Mason. The five men attempted to escape but were detained by US troops.
Though early reports suggested the men might be from Yemen’s Houthi rebel movement, US Air Force brigadier Pat Ryder said on Tuesday that the men are believed to be Somali pirates.
However, he said the Pentagon has not ruled out the possibility that the attack was instigated or assisted by Houthi rebels. The American rescuers briefly came under missile fire from Houthi-controlled areas, although these may have been warning shots.
The Central Park is reportedly owned and operated by Zodiac Maritime, a shipping company run by the Israeli business magnate Eyal Ofer with its headquarters in London.
It was the latest in a series of attacks on Israeli-affiliated shipping since the start of the current conflict in early October when the Palestinian militant group Hamas invaded southern Israel.
On Friday, a container ship owned by another Israeli businessman was attacked by a suspected drone while sailing in the Indian Ocean, according to the Associated Press.
Earlier the same week, Houthi rebels claimed to have seized an Israeli freighter in the Red Sea, declaring that all commercial ships linked to Israel were “legitimate targets”.
Yemen has been in a protracted civil war since 2014, pitching multiple rebel factions including Houthi militants against an internationally recognised government backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.