A cable laying vessel reported being fired upon by 16 assailants armed with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and AK47 assault rifles west of Yemen’s Jazirat al Hanish al Kabir islands on July 22.
Armed security on board the merchant vessel returned warning shots and a nearby warship reportedly acknowledged the master’s distress call, scrambling media to report a piracy scare.
However the incident, near position 13’ 37” N - 042’ 35” E, proved to be an encounter with local Yemeni Security Forces according to United Kingdom Marine Trade Operations (UKMTO) who were alerted in the immediate aftermath and have since investigated the episode.
“The combined military assessment of the incident reported in the Southern Red Sea 22nd July, concludes this was not an attack or act of attempted piracy but an encounter with local Yemeni Security Forces from the Hanish Islands investigating a ship conducting legitimate operations and responding to warning shots from the on-board Armed Security Team,” UKMTO reports.
UKMTO urged mariners to “remain vigilant when transiting the area and report any suspicious activity to UKMTO” despite the isolated incident.
The warning has been echoed by UK-based maritime security specialists Protection Vessels International (PVI) who say the threat of attacks targeting merchant vessels transiting the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea remains.
“There have been several reports of suspicious activity in the region in 2016, including sightings of ladders and weapons on board vessels that indicate the continued presence of violent criminal groups in the High Risk Area,” PVI said.
The Hanish Islands enjoy a hotly disputed history with Ethiopia, Eritrea and Yemen all claiming sovereignty at different times. Last year the archipelago was reportedly the scene of intense fighting between forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and Houthi insurgents and forces loyal to acting president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, the latter backed by Gulf Arab coalition forces.
“Reported incidents of piracy since early 2014 have clustered around the Gulf of Aden and southern Red Sea, suggesting that the threat originates in Yemen, although the identity of the attackers remains unclear,” PVI said of the July 22 episode where the cable layer was steaming at just 0.5 knots north of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait.
Last month’s attack comes after piracy watchdog International Maritime Bureau (IMB) reported attacks dropped to a 21-year low in the first half of 2016.
However, IMB director Pottengal Mukundan urged continued vigilance off Somalia despite the kidnap for ransom problem cooling due to the presence of international Naval patrols and private security deployed on merchant vessels.
“Ships need to stay vigilant, maintain security and report all attacks, as the threat of piracy remains, particularly off Somalia and in the Gulf of Guinea," he said.