Japan’s government said it was “directly approaching” Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis after they hijacked a Japanese-operated cargo ship in the Red Sea.
The hijack on Sunday saw dozens of crew on board taken hostage on the Galaxy Leader, a Bahamian flagged vessel.
The car carrier, Galaxy Leader, was taken to a Yemeni port and according to The Telegraph, the proxy group believed it was owned by an Israeli businessman, but on Monday, Japanese officials confirmed the vessel was operated by Tokyo-based firm Nippon Yusen.
Japan’s foreign minister, Yoko Kamikawa, said Japan “strongly condemns” the ship’s hijacking as it worked on its release. “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. The company said it had set up a crisis management centre at its offices in Tokyo.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, was quick to blame Iran 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 link to Israel is believed to have come 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.
On Sunday, amidst the war in Gaza following Iran-backed Hamas’s attacks on Israel on October 7, the Houthis had warned that 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 Houthis are one of several Iranian proxies to have joined the war on Israel across its borders, attacks having been launched from Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, in addition to the ongoing barrage from Hamas.
While the people in the Gaza Strip are entering a devastating humanitarian crisis following Israel’s relentless retaliation for an attack which was the single most deadly day for Jews since the Holocaust, the proxy militia has had no let-up in its rocket salvos to Israel.
The Houthis have been launching long-range missile and drone salvoes at Israel since the war broke out, leaders in Iran hailing what they say is the imminent downfall of ‘the Zionist entity’.
Mohammed Abdul-Salam, the Houthis’ spokesman, said Israel only understands “the language of force”, adding, “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.”
Meanwhile, the US national security council called the attack a “flagrant violation of international law", demanding the release of the ship and its crew, warning it will take appropriate next steps with its allies and UN partners.
The US was unequivocal in its support for Israel’s right to defend itself after October 7 saw at least 1,200 mostly civilians murdered and 240 taken hostage to Gaza.
It has since sent battleships to the region in a bid to prevent escalation but as a result of its support for Israel, has had over 40 attacks on its facilities in Syria and Iraq amidst a worsening regional crisis.