FILE PHOTO: This picture released by the U.S. Navy allegedly shows members of the Iranian forces fast-roping onto civilian tanker WILA en-route to the UAE from a Sea King helicopter, in international waters in the Strait of Hormuz, August 12, 2020. REUTERS./

By Idrees Ali, Phil Stewart and Aziz El Yaakoubi

 – A U.S. Navy warship responded to a distress call from a commercial tanker in the Gulf of Aden that had been seized by armed individuals and the vessel is now safe, U.S. officials said on Sunday.

The tanker, which had been carrying a cargo of phosphoric acid, was identified as the Central Park by the vessel’s company. The officials did not identify the attackers.

In a statement, the U.S. military said the USS Mason, with help from allied ships, demanded that the commercial ship be released by the attackers.

Five armed individuals tried to escape on a fast boat but were chased by the U.S. warship and they eventually surrendered.

The statement added that two ballistic missiles were fired from Houthi controlled parts of Yemen towards the general direction of the Mason and Central Park, but they landed about 10 nautical miles away from them and there was no damage or injuries.

The incident is the latest in a series of attacks in Middle Eastern waters since a brutal war between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas broke out on Oct. 7.

It followed a seizure of an Israeli-linked cargo ship by Yemen Houthis, allies of Iran, in the southern Red Sea last week. The group, which also fired ballistic missiles and armed drones at Israel, vowed to target more Israeli vessels.

Central Park, a small chemical tanker (19,998 metric tons), is managed by Zodiac Maritime Ltd, a London-headquartered international ship management company owned by Israel’s Ofer family. The Liberian-flagged vessel was built in 2015 and is owned by Clumvez Shipping Inc, LSEG data showed.

Zodiac Maritime said in a statement that Central Park, which is carrying a full cargo of phosphoric acid, was involved in a suspected piracy incident while crossing international waters, approximately 54 nautical miles off the coast of Somalia.

Phosphoric acid is mostly used for fertilisers.

“Our priority is the safety of our 22 crew onboard. The Turkish captained vessel has a multinational crew consisting of a crew of Russian, Vietnamese, Bulgarian, Indian, Georgian and Filipino nationals,” the statement added.

There was no immediate comment from Houthi officials.

Britain’s Maritime Trade Operations agency (UKMTO) said on Sunday it was aware of a possible attack in southwest Aden and called on other vessels to exercise caution.

The U.S. has blamed Iran for unclaimed attacks on several vessels in the region in the past few years. Tehran has denied involvement.

A container ship managed by an Israeli-controlled company was hit by a suspected Iranian drone in the Indian Ocean, causing minor damage to the vessel but no injuries, a U.S. defence official said on Saturday.

Israeli-Managed Vessel Hit by Suspected Iranian Drone, US Official Says

Hamas fighters rampaged into Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people. Since then, Israel has rained bombs on Gaza, killing about 14,000 people, roughly 40% of them children, Palestinian health authorities say.

Thirteen Israelis and four Thai nationals arrived in Israel early on Sunday after a second release of hostages held by Hamas following an initial delay caused by a dispute about aid delivery into Gaza.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali, Phil Stewart and Aziz El Yaakoubi, additional reporting by William Schomberg in London; Editing by David Goodman, Louise Heavens and David Gregorio)

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