At least two commercial vessels and a US warship sailing off Yemen were hit by projectiles launched by Houthi rebels on Sunday, in a string of incidents recorded near Bab el-Mandeb.

According to Iranian media, Yemeni military spokesperson Yahya Saree confirmed that the country’s navy carried out strikes against two Israeli-linked ships. One was hit by a missile and the other by a drone, Iranian media said.

Information provided by maritime security consultants Diaplous and Ambrey Analytics suggests that at least four merchant vessels were either directly hit or came dangerously close to being hit by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

In the most serious incident, Ambrey reported the 4,253-teu Number 9 (built 2007) as having received a blow, about 63 miles (102 km) northwest of the Yemeni port of Hodeidah.

According to Ambrey, several vessels nearby heard broadcasts indicating that the Orient Overseas Container Line-operated container ship was “struck by [a] drone” and “taking on water”.

It appears to be an intensification of the attacks on merchant shipping in the region by Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

The Iran-backed group has said it will attack commercial vessels linked to Israel, in solidarity with Palestinians over the war against Hamas in Gaza.

The Number 9 seems to be the unidentified vessel that Diaplous reported earlier on Sunday as hit by a UAV “at the lower part of the accommodation by an unidentified object”.

According to Ambrey, unknown Yemeni authorities then ordered the boxship to alter its course towards the Yemeni coast, threatening it with another attack in case of non-compliance.

This information is corroborated by a separate alert issued earlier on Sunday by UK Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO), according to which “an entity declaring itself to be Yemeni authorities” ordered the master of an unidentified vessel to alter its course.

According to Ambrey, however, the master of the Number 9 said he was unable to comply with the request, citing an engine malfunction.

In the case of the Number 9, however, an Israeli link is not immediately clear. The ship is managed by Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (BSM). VesselsValue links it to UK-based Mount Street Capital. Ambrey says it is US-controlled.

A statement issued on behalf of BSM confirmed the ship was “hit by a projectile” while transiting the Bab el-Mandeb Strait that connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.

All crew members are accounted for and safe. There were no reports of pollution and the vessel is currently sailing, it added.

The company’s emergency response team are working with all relevant authorities and parties. “Our priorities are to ensure the continued safety of the crew and vessel.”

Explosion above geared ultramax

The first information about military action in the area surfaced early on Sunday when UKMTO tweeted on X that it had received reports of a “potential explosion” near Bab el-Mandeb at 0610 GMT, caused by an uncrewed aerial system “originating from the direction of Yemen”.

Later in the day, Diaplous elaborated that the incident concerned a loitering drone, which attacked a Bahamas-flagged, UK-owned and Israeli-affiliated bulk carrier as it was sailing south.

As TradeWinds already reported and Ambrey confirmed later on Sunday, the vessel is Unity Maritime’s 60,700-dwt Unity Explorer (built 2016), a geared ultramax, which was tracked on 28 November in Port Said heading south.

Unity Maritime is controlled by Danny Ungar — the son of Abraham “Rami” Ungar, whose Ray Car Carriers’ 5,100-ceu Galaxy Leader (built 2022) was hijacked by Houthis last month.

The Unity Explorer was targeted by drones at least twice. The first exploded about 30 metres above the deck between the second and third crane and the second one mile ahead of the bulker.

Fragments are said to have dropped on deck.

Managers at Unity Maritime did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

After the drone exploded over their heads, the crew of the geared bulker remained in the secure citadel, under the guidance of the armed guards it had on board. The ship is said to be heading south under the protection of a coalition warship, possibly a frigate.

A third vessel that “experienced heavy vibrations” and was “reportedly struck by an unidentified object”, according to Ambrey, is Nissen Kaiun’s Panama-flagged 81,200-dwt AOM Sophie II (built 2020).

Just like the Unity Explorer, the crew withdrew to the citadel without any injuries or damage reported.

In another incident, SK Shipping’s 300,800-dwt VLCC C Genuine (built 2022) “sighted an explosion in the air above” as it was sailing about 10 nautical miles off Taiz, Yemen. No damage or injuries were reported.

Ambrey believes the explosion was caused by a projectile launched by Houthis but intercepted by unknown players.

This speculation is not unfounded, considering that a coalition warship sent to assist one of the stricken vessels came under attack itself on Sunday.

According to Diaplous, an explosion was spotted near the USS Carney, a guided missile destroyer that was directed to rush to the area and that shot down an Iranian-made Houthi drone last week, as TradeWinds reported.

These attacks represent a marked increase in Houthi activity against commercial shipping in the area.

In the first and so far most serious of these attacks, Houthi fighters last month hijacked the car carrier Galaxy Leader. The ship and its crew remain in Houthi custody.

In another incident, the Eastern Pacific Shipping-owned 15,300-teu container ship CMA CGM Symi (built 2022) was hit on 25 November by a suspected Iranian-made kamikaze drone in the Indian Ocean.

A day later, a Zodiac Maritime-owned, 20,000-dwt tanker, the Central Park (built 2015) was boarded by five unknown assailants officially described as pirates.

The attackers left the vessel after a few hours and were apprehended by a US warship.