Britain and its allies “reserve the right to respond appropriately” after a missile strike claimed by Houthi rebels on an oil tanker in the Gulf of Aden, the Government has said.
The Marlin Luanda was sent up in flames after an attack off the coast of Yemen on Friday, days after the latest round of US-UK military action against the Iran-backed group. No casualties have yet been reported.
Military ships were en route to assist on Friday as multinational firm Trafigura said the safety of crew on the vessel, which is operated on its behalf, is its “foremost priority”.
A Government spokesperson said: “We have been clear that any attacks on commercial shipping are completely unacceptable and that the UK and our allies reserve the right to respond appropriately.”
It comes after an earlier incident in which two missiles were reported to have exploded in the water and “vessel and crew are safe and no damage reported”.
The Yemeni armed forces claimed it had targeted a “British oil” vessel, but shipping data shows the Marlin Luanda sails under the flag of the Marshall Islands.
The Houthis have repeatedly launched attacks on vessels in the Red Sea since November over Israel’s war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip, though they have frequently targeted vessels with tenuous or no clear links to Israel, endangering shipping on a key route for global trade.
Alongside numerous airstrikes on Houthi targets, the UK and US are also issuing sanctions against key figures in the militant group.
A second series of UK and US airstrikes, carried out at the start of the week, appears to have done little to deter Houthi action.
A Trafigura spokesperson said in a statement: “Earlier on January 26, the Marlin Luanda, a petroleum products tanker vessel operated on behalf of Trafigura, was struck by a missile as it transited the Red Sea.
“Firefighting equipment on board is being deployed to suppress and control the fire caused in one cargo tank on the starboard side. The safety of the crew is our foremost priority.
“We remain in contact with the vessel and are monitoring the situation carefully. Military ships in the region are under way to provide assistance.”
Earlier on Friday, a spokeswoman for the Prime Minister said: “We continue to call on (the Houthis) to step back from such action. We’re clear that this is illegal and unacceptable.”
Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron is currently finishing a trip to the Middle East in a diplomatic bid to reduce tensions as the Israeli bombardment of Gaza continues.