DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Armed assailants seized and later let go a tanker linked to Israel off the coast of Yemen on Sunday before being apprehended by the United States Navy, officials said. Two ballistic missiles fired from Houthi-controlled Yemen then landed near a U.S. warship in the Gulf of Aden, raising the stakes amid a series of ship attacks linked to the Israel-Hamas war.
Yemen's internationally recognized government blamed the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels for the attack, though the rebels in control of the capital, Sanaa, did not acknowledge either the seizure or the missile attack.
The attackers seized the Liberian-flagged Central Park, managed by Zodiac Maritime, in the Gulf of Aden, the company, the U.S. and British militaries and private intelligence firm Ambrey said.
Early this morning, Zodiac said the vessel carrying phosphoric acid and its crew of 22 sailors from Bulgaria, Georgia, India, the Philippines, Russia, Turkey and Vietnam were "unharmed."
The U.S. military's Central Command said in a statement early today that its forces, including the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Mason, responded to the seizure and demanded the armed assailants release the tanker.
"Subsequently, five armed individuals debarked the ship and attempted to flee via their small boat," Central Command said. "The Mason pursued the attackers resulting in their eventual surrender."
The Central Command did not identify the men but said a missile launch from Houthi-controlled Yemen followed early this morning .
"The missiles landed in the Gulf of Aden approximately ten nautical miles from the ships," the statement said. "The USS Mason ... was concluding its response to the M/V Central Park distress call at the time of the missile launches. There was no damage or reported injuries from either vessel during this incident."
Zodiac described the vessel as being owned by Clumvez Shipping Inc., though other records directly linked Zodiac as the owner. London-based Zodiac Maritime is part of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer's Zodiac Group. British corporate records listed two men with the last name Ofer as a current and former director of Clumvez Shipping, including Daniel Guy Ofer, who is also a director at Zodiac Maritime.
Yemen's internationally recognized government, which is based out of nearby Aden, blamed the rebels for the seizure in a statement carried by their state-run news agency.
The attack happened in a part of the Gulf of Aden that is in theory under the control of that government's forces and is fairly distant from Houthi-controlled territory in the country. Somali pirates are not known to operate in that area.
The British military's United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO), which provides warnings to sailors in the Middle East, had earlier issued a warning to sailors that "two black-and-white craft carrying eight persons in military-style clothing" had been seen in the area.
The UKMTO put the Central Park's location over 35 miles south of Yemen's coast, some 50 miles east of Djibouti and around 70 miles northeast of Somalia in the Gulf of Aden, a key shipping route.
The Central Park had been behaving as if it faced a threat in recent days.
The Central Park had switched off its Automatic Identification System trackers, according to data from MarineTraffic.com analyzed by the AP. Ships are supposed to keep their AIS active for safety reasons, but crews will turn them off if it appears they might be targeted. In the Central Park's case, the vessel had last transmitted four days ago after it left the Suez Canal heading south into the Red Sea.
Global shipping has increasingly been targeted as the Israel-Hamas war threatens to become a wider regional conflict -- even as a truce has halted fighting and Hamas exchanges hostages for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
Information for this article was contributed by Tara Copp of The Associated Press.