Three crew members were killed aboard the True Confidence vessel in a Houthi missile attack yesterday (6 March) – the first direct fatalities since the Yemeni militant group began targeting ships in the Red Sea last November.

True Confidence was 50 nautical miles southwest of Yemen’s Port of Aden when the Houthis’ anti-ship ballistic missile struck near the stern of the vessel.

The 13-year-old, 50,448 DWT bulk carrier was carrying a cargo of steel products and trucks from the Chinese Port of Lianyungang to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, data from Marine Traffic shows.

True Confidence is damaged but reportedly towable. A salvage team has moved in to tow the vessel under the protection of the Indian Navy.  

US, UK, IMO condemn Houthis' attack

The British Embassy in Sana’a initially confirmed the deaths of “two innocent sailors”, describing it as “the sad but inevitable consequence” of Houthi attacks.

Later last night, US Central Command increased the toll to three – one Vietnamese and two Filipino crew members.

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At least four more were injured, three of whom are in critical condition.

Earlier this year, four US Navy SEALs drowned in the Arabian Sea while attempting to board an unflagged vessel the US claimed was transporting Iranian weapons to Houthi-controlled Yemen.  

Yesterday’s casualties marked the first among merchant sailors – and first deaths due to direct Houthi attacks – amid the ongoing Red Sea conflict.

In a joint statement, True Confidence Shipping and Greece-based operator Third January Maritime Ltd said that “the vessel is drifting, with a fire continuing onboard”.

Statement from True Confidence Shipping and Third January Maritime Ltd.

Both companies also reiterated that “there is no current connection with any US entity”, contrary to Houthi claims. The True Confidence was Barbados-flagged, Liberia-owned.

Houthis target international trade, US targets Houthi finance

International Maritime Organisation (IMO) secretary-general Arsenio Dominguez said the reports were “deeply saddening” and “horrific”.

He added that “international trade depends on international shipping and international shipping cannot go on without seafarers,” pointing to the severe economic disruption caused by Houthi attacks since 19 November.

Roughly 11% of global trade passes through the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandab Strait.

Freight rates hit record highs in January and February, while many shipping companies opted to reroute supply chains around the Cape of Good Hope, adding ten days’ journey time compared to transits through the Suez Canal.  

Hours before the attack, the US Department of State announced sanctions on the al-Jamal financial network, which it said facilitated Houthi attacks.

“The United States is today imposing sanctions on two ship owners and identifying two vessels as blocked property for their role in shipping commodities on behalf of Sa’id al-Jamal, an Iran-based, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force-backed Houthi financial facilitator,” said department spokesperson Matthew Miller. “Revenue generated through al-Jamal’s network enables Houthi militant efforts, including ongoing attacks on international maritime commerce in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.”

What have the Houthis said?

Yesterday’s attack saw the Houthis launch their fifth anti-ship ballistic missile in two days. Two of these impacted shipping vessels, while one was shot down by USS Carney.

Houthi spokesperson Yahya Sare’e said the strikes were “in retaliation to the American-British aggression against our country” and for “the oppressed Palestinian people”, opposing Israel’s military actions in Gaza.

The US and UK have conducted multiple joint airstrikes on Yemen since 11 January.

On 18 February, Houthi missiles hit the Belize-flagged, UK-owned Rubymar carrier, forcing crew members to abandon ship as it was towed to Djibouti.

While there were no fatalities, the attack intensified concerns about the Houthis’ ambitions to sabotage international internet cables in the Red Sea, echoed by Yemeni telecoms firms.

In an interview with CBS News yesterday (6 March), US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said, “cables were cut, most likely by an anchor dragging from the Rubymar as she sank”.

The Rubymar attack also sparked environmental concerns after it left an “18-mile oil slick” in the Gulf of Aden and caused damaging ocean acidification as on-board fertilisers mixed with local marine ecosystems.