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Tanker Ship Off India Hit by Attack Drone 'Fired From Iran,' Pentagon Says

Locator map showing Iran with its capital, Tehran.
Locator map showing Iran with its capital, Tehran.

A Japanese-owned chemical tanker struck Saturday off the coast of India was targeted by a drone "fired from Iran," the Pentagon said in a statement, a sign of expanding risks to commercial shipping beyond the Red Sea.

The attack came amid a flurry of drone and missile strikes by Yemen's Iran-backed Houthi rebels on a vital Red Sea shipping lane. The attacks began after the start of the Israel-Hamas war, with the rebel group claiming to act in solidarity with Gaza.

Saturday's attack took place around 10 a.m. local time (0600 GMT) and caused no casualties aboard the vessel, the Pentagon statement said, adding that a fire had been extinguished.

The U.S. military "remains in communication with the vessel as it continues toward a destination in India," the statement said.

The drone strike occurred 370 kilometers off the coast of India, it said, adding that no U.S. Navy vessels were in the vicinity.

It was the first time the Pentagon has openly accused Iran of directly targeting ships since the start of Israel's war on the militant group Hamas, which is backed by Iran and is a designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S., U.K, EU and others.

In an interview published Sunday, British Foreign Secretary David Cameron branded Iran a "malign influence" and pledged stepped-up deterrence toward Tehran.

"Iran is a thoroughly malign influence in the region and in the world -- there's no doubt about that," he told the Sunday Telegraph newspaper.

"You've got the Houthis, you've got Hezbollah, you've got the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq that have actually been attacking British and American bases, troops. And, of course, Hamas.

"So you've got all of these proxies, and I think it's incredibly important that, first of all, Iran receives an incredibly clear message that this escalation will not be tolerated."

The former British prime minister echoed accusations by the United States Friday that Iran is involved in attacks on commercial ships by Yemen's Houthi rebels, providing drones, missiles and tactical intelligence.

The Pentagon statement said the MV Chem Pluto ship is flying under a Liberian flag and operated by a Dutch entity even though it is owned by a Japanese company.

Ambrey, a maritime security firm, said the "chemical/products tanker ... was Israel-affiliated" and had been on its way from Saudi Arabia to India.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the Dutch company operating the MV Chem Pluto "is connected to Israeli shipping tycoon Idan Ofer."

The Indian navy said it had responded to a request for assistance.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the strike.

Last month, an Israeli-owned cargo ship was hit in a suspected drone attack by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the Indian Ocean, according to a U.S. official.

The Malta-flagged vessel managed by an Israeli-affiliated company was reportedly damaged when the unmanned aerial vehicle exploded close to it, according to Ambrey.

The Red Sea attacks on shipping since the start of the Israel-Hamas war have prompted major firms to reroute their cargo vessels around the southern tip of Africa, despite the higher fuel costs of much longer voyages.

The United States has been joined by more than 20 countries, including the U.K., in setting up a multinational naval task force to protect Red Sea shipping.

The Houthi rebels have launched more than 100 drone and missile attacks, targeting 10 merchant vessels involving more than 35 different countries, according to the Pentagon.

On Saturday, an official in Iran's Revolutionary Guard warned of the forced closure of other waterways unless Israel halted its war with Hamas.

"With the continuation of these crimes, America and its allies should expect the emergence of new resistance forces and the closure of other waterways," Mohammad Reza Naqdi said, quoted by Iran's Tasnim news agency.

Among the waterways he mentioned was the Mediterranean Sea. He did not elaborate.