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Oil tanker attacked on key transit route along Yemen's coast

Bab al-Mandab shipping lane is an important economic route where nearly four million barrels of oil are moved daily
Pro-government Yemeni forces patrol a coastline along the Bab al-Mandab strait (AFP)

An oil tanker has come under fire off Yemen by unknown assailants while passing through the strategic Bab al-Mandab strait into the Red Sea, a Saudi-led coalition supporting the Yemeni government said on Thursday.

The EU Naval Force said in a statement that the attackers fired three rocket-propelled grenades before breaking off their assault on the Marshall Islands-flagged tanker Mt Muskie in the southern Bab al-Mandab Strait. The tanker is 70,362 tonnes deadweight.

The shipping lane connecting the Indian Ocean with the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean beyond is a key transit route for oil and gas from the Gulf, and Washington has expressed growing concern about its security.

Nearly four million barrels of oil are shipped daily to Europe, the United States and Asia via the Bab al-Mandab, as well as other commercial goods.

"None of the crew was hurt," said the coalition statement carried by official Saudi Press Agency, adding that the tanker had sailed on into the Red Sea.

It was not clear if any of the RPGs hit the ship.

The attack happened near Perim, or Mayun in Arabic, an island that commands the strategic strait and has been controlled by coalition forces since 2015 when they seized it from Yemeni rebels.

The coalition, which has in the past accused the Houthi rebels of threatening the security of shipping passing through the strait, said it was investigating who was behind the latest attack.

There has also been a resurgence in attacks on shipping in the area by Somali pirates in recent months.

"Arms- and ammunition-smuggling activities into Yemen that are carried out by Huthi militias threaten maritime security in this vital part of the world," the coalition statement said. 

The rebels control most of Yemen's Red Sea coastline, although a government offensive launched at the start of the year has pushed them away from the strait itself.

In January, the rebels attacked a Saudi frigate off the Yemeni coast killing two sailors in what the coalition said was a suicide attack.

In September and October, two US warships and a United Arab Emirates vessel contracted to the coalition were targeted by missile fire from rebel-held territory.

In March, the head of US Central Command, General Joe Votel, warned that coastal defence missiles, radar systems, mines and explosives boats deployed by the rebels posed a threat to shipping in the strait.

The Saudi-led coalition has patrolled the waters off Yemen to enforce a blockade of rebel-held areas since it launched a military intervention in support of the government in March 2015.

Meanwhile, suspected pirates in a skiff attacked a Marshall Islands-flagged oil tanker, MT NAVIG8 Providence, in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday and were driven off by the ship's security, the European Naval Force said.

"There was an exchange of small arms fire between the suspected pirates and the maritime security team on board the tanker," the maritime force, known as EU NAVFOR, said in a statement.