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US fires on Houthi missile hours after Trafigura ship attack

Royal Air Force Typhoon FGR4 is prepared for take off to carry out air strikes against Houthi military targets in Yemen at RAF Akrotiri on Jan. 22, 2024, in Akrotiri, Cyprus. (MoD Crown Copyright/Getty Images/TNS)

United States Navy ships fired on a Houthi anti-ship missile in Yemen hours after a tanker operated on behalf of trading giant Trafigura Group carrying a cargo of Russian fuel was hit in the most significant attack yet by the rebel group on an oil-carrying vessel.

The U.S. Central Command said the Houthi missile was prepared to launch and posed an “imminent threat” to shipping in the area. U.S. forces destroyed the missile, Centcom said on X.

The U.S. strike came hours after the Houthi rebels claimed the missile attack on the Marlin Luanda. The vessel was carrying Russian-origin naphtha — a product used to make plastics and gasoline — purchased below the price cap imposed by the Group of Seven nations, a Trafigura spokesperson said Friday.

“All crew on board the Marlin Luanda are safe and the fire in the cargo tank has been fully extinguished,” the company said in a statement on its website at noon in London. “The vessel is now sailing towards a safe harbour.”

No other ships operating on behalf of Trafigura are currently in the Gulf of Aden and “we continue to assess carefully the risks involved in any voyage,” the statement said.

Global benchmark Brent rallied to a two-month high.

The attack on the Marlin Luanda will raise fresh questions about whether oil tankers will continue to transit the Red Sea. Since joint U.S. and U.K. airstrikes on the Houthis earlier this month, tanker traffic in the region has declined but some oil exporters, including Saudi Arabia, continue to use the waterway.

That the targeted ship carried fuel from Russia will likely concern Moscow. Vast amounts of Russian petroleum now pass through the southern Red Sea to reach Asian buyers following Europe’s shunning of its cargoes due to the war in Ukraine. A Houthi spokesman previously told the Russian newspaper Izvestia that Russian and Chinese ships sailing through the Red Sea would be safe even as the group targets U.S. and U.K. vessels.

The vessel collected its Russia-origin cargo via a so-called ship-to-ship transfer from a stretch of water in the Laconian Gulf in southern Greece, according to data from analytics firm Kpler. The area has been pivotal in helping Russia to get its petroleum to the global market and, as well as handling supplies under the price cap, has also facilitated more shadowy trades.

Trafigura, along with other commodity traders like Glencore Plc, Vitol Group and Gunvor Group, was one of the biggest lifters of oil from Russia before the country’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and was a partner in a major oil project run by state producer Rosneft PJSC.

The company has since moved away from those flows following U.S., European and U.K. sanctions on Russia’s energy exports. While its CEO Jeremy Weir has said it continues to trade small amounts of refined oil products from Russia, that position was under review.

That the company picked up a cargo via a ship-to-ship transfer off the coast of Greece sheds light on how one of the world’s biggest commodity trading houses is continuing to facilitate the export of oil products from Russia, at a time when war in Ukraine is still raging.

Ship-to-ship transfers have drawn regulatory scrutiny, mostly related to vessels operating outside of the G7 price cap where the transfers can make it harder to keep track of a cargo’s origin. There have been particular concerns relating to older ships and when the switching takes place in an unregulated manner, although there is no suggestion that that is the case for the Marlin Luanda.

The latest incident also suggests that the U.S. and its allies still haven’t sufficiently degraded the Houthis’ military capabilities two weeks after launching the first of several airstrikes on the group’s missiles, radars and other assets across Yemen. On Friday Houthi militants fired an anti-ship ballistic missile at the USS Carney, which successfully shot down the missile, Centcom said.

Last weekend, U.S. deputy national security adviser Jon Finer said military actions to deter the Houthis and other groups backed by Iran would take time.

“Deterrence is not a light switch,” Finer told ABC. “We are taking out these stockpiles so they will not be able to conduct so many attacks over time. That will take time to play out.”

The area in question and the southern Red Sea have been the center of multiple attacks on ships by Houthi militants in recent weeks. Since mid-November, the Houthis have launched near daily attacks on vessels transiting the waterway, in an act of solidarity with Palestinians amid the war between Israel and the militant group Hamas. The conflict has rerouted trade flows as some shippers avoid the key waterway.

Earlier Friday, missiles exploded near a Panama-flagged, India-affiliated ship carrying oil from Russia, according to Ambrey.


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