17 Filipinos among cargo ship crew held hostage in Red Sea
MANILA, Philippines — The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Wednesday confirmed that 17 Filipino seafarers were among the crewmen being held hostage by the Yemen rebel group Houthi, which seized a cargo ship in the southern Red Sea on Nov. 19.
The incident forces Manila into a second crisis area in the Middle East where Filipinos have fallen into the hands of armed groups.
In the war-torn Gaza Strip, two Filipinos are believed to be among the captives taken by the Palestinian militant group Hamas following its cross-border attacks on Israel on Oct. 7.
“There were 17 Filipinos according to the (ship) manning agency, along with other nationals,” Foreign Undersecretary Eduardo de Vega said in a television interview, referring to the Filipinos on board the hijacked ship Galaxy Leader.
“This may have a connection with the ongoing war between Hamas militants and Israel. The ship was targeted because it was allegedly Israeli-owned although the operator was a Japanese company,” he said.
The DFA, he said, was counting on the assurance given by the Iran-backed Houthi that no foreign crew members would be hurt.
“We are looking after their welfare. The safety of our countrymen abroad is a paramount policy and priority of our government. Just wait and we will find a way to save them,” said De Vega.
25 crewmen taken
In a separate statement, he said: “We have been making representations with foreign governments. DFA is working with the DMW (Department of Migrant Workers) which has primary jurisdiction over assistance [to] cases involving seafarers, as well as the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (Owwa).”
“There is an all-of-government approach and various government agencies are meeting and working together on this,” he added. “We assure the public that everything is being done to get our seafarers back safely,” he said.
Reuters earlier reported that 25 crew members of Galaxy Leader were taken by Houthi rebels and that the hostages were of various nationalities, including Filipinos, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, and Mexicans.
The Houthi group earlier said it was on the lookout for Israeli vessels in the commercially vital waters of the Red Sea—even those that did not have Israeli flags.
The Houthis have launched a series of drone and missile strikes targeting Israel since October, following a surprise attack by Hamas militants on Israel.
The United States is reviewing “potential terrorist designations” for Yemen’s Houthi rebel group in response to its seizure of the cargo ship, White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said on Tuesday.
Kirby’s comment was significant because one of the Biden administration’s first acts after taking office in January 2021 was revoking terrorist designations of the Houthis over fears the sanctions they carried could worsen Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.
When it seized the Galaxy Leader on Sunday, the Houthis, who have been sending drones and long-range missiles at Israel in solidarity with Hamas, described the vessel as Israeli-owned.
Kirby called the Houthis’ seizure a “flagrant violation of international law” in which “Iran is complicit.”
“In light of this, we have begun a review of potential terrorist designations and we will be considering other options as well with our allies and partners as well,” Kirby said at a White House press briefing.
He called for the immediate release of the ship and its international crew.
The Bahamas-flagged car carrier is chartered by Japan’s Nippon Yusen. It is owned by a firm registered under Isle of Man-headquartered Ray Car Carriers, which is a unit of Tel Aviv-incorporated Ray Shipping, according to LSEG data.
Iran has denied involvement in the seizure of the ship, which the car carrier’s owner on Monday said was taken to the Houthi-controlled southern Yemen port of Hodeidah.
Yemen erupted in civil war after the Houthis, members of the Zaydi sect of Shiite Islam, seized the capital Sanaa in 2014. A Saudi-led coalition intervened the following year.
Although a UN-brokered ceasefire collapsed in October 2022, Yemen has enjoyed relative calm as the Houthis and Saudi Arabia negotiate a settlement.
The country remains the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with some 21.6 million people—about two-thirds of the population—dependent on aid, according to the United Nations.
The Trump administration blacklisted the Houthis a day before its term ended, prompting the United Nations, aid groups and some US lawmakers to express fears that sanctions would disrupt flows of food, fuel, and other commodities into Yemen.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Feb. 12, 2021, revoked the designations in “recognition of the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen.”
Meanwhile, De Vega expressed high hopes on the fate of the two Filipinos believed to be held hostage by Hamas, following the declaration of a four-day truce in Gaza.
“Israel knows that we expect the Filipino citizens to be among the first to be released as soon as possible, but their priority is Israeli children and their mothers,” he added.
“It will happen in the next few days that a few hostages will be released per day… let’s see. Hopefully, let’s expect that this will continue.”
Twenty-six Filipinos have decided to remain in Gaza, it added.