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UK to start Gaza surveillance flights to help find hostages

Rocket fire hits UK-owned ship – report

By AFP - Dec 03,2023 - Last updated at Dec 03,2023

A photo taken from southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip on Sunday, shows the moon setting as an Israeli drone flies above the Palestinian enclave amid continuing Israeli bombardment of Gaza (AFP photo)

LONDON — The UK's military will conduct surveillance flights over Gaza to help locate hostages held by Hamas, Britain's defence ministry confirmed at the weekend.

Hamas fighters seized around 240 Israelis and foreign hostages, according to Israeli authorities. Around 110 have since been freed, mainly during a recent week-long truce.

Israeli forces said on Friday it had resumed fighting in the besieged Palestinian territory, blaming Hamas. The resumption of combat has frustrated hopes for the swift release of the more than 130 captives the Israeli army has said are still being held in Gaza.

Israel vowed to eliminate group and its subsequent relentless air and ground campaign has killed more than 15,000 people, also mostly civilians, according to the Hamas authorities who run Gaza.

London did not reveal when its military surveillance flights over the territory would start but stressed they would be unarmed and focused only on hostage recovery efforts.

"In support of the ongoing hostage rescue activity, the UK ministry of defence will conduct surveillance flights over the Eastern Mediterranean, including operating in air space over Israel and Gaza," it said in a statement.

"Surveillance aircraft will be unarmed, do not have a combat role, and will be tasked solely to locate hostages," the ministry added.

"Only information relating to hostage rescue will be passed to the relevant authorities responsible for hostage rescue."

UK government minister, Victoria Atkins, told the BBC on Sunday that the aircraft to be utilised were “unarmed and unmanned drones”.

Alongside the United States, the UK in October deployed various military assets to the eastern Mediterranean to deter “any malign interference in the conflict”.

That included maritime patrol and surveillance aircraft as well as a Royal Navy task group moving to the region, the defence ministry said at the time. 

Meanwhile, a UK-owned ship passing through the Red Sea has reportedly been hit by rocket fire, a UK-based maritime security group said Sunday, with another agency reporting possible drone activity in the area. 

The unnamed Bahamas-flagged vessel was “struck by a rocket” while sailing south around 35 nautical miles off Yemen’s western coast, maritime security firm Ambrey said, citing reports.

“The affected vessel was issuing distress calls relating to piracy/missile attack,” the UK-based company added.

It noted reports that “an international naval asset in the vicinity of the incident” was likely proceeding to the ship’s location.

The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations agency, run by Britain’s Royal Navy, said it had received “a report of Uncrewed Aerial Systems activity including a potential explosion... originating from the direction of Yemen”.

It advised vessels in the area to “exercise caution”.

The reported incident comes amid heightened tensions in the Red Sea and surrounding waters after Iran-backed Houthi rebels seized an Israeli-linked cargo vessel, the Galaxy Leader, last month.

Within days two ballistic missiles were also launched from an area controlled by Houthi rebels in Yemen, landing around 10 nautical miles from a US destroyer, the USS Mason, according to the Pentagon.

The Houthis have fired a series of drone and missile strikes targeting Israel since Hamas fighters poured over the border into Israel on October 7.

The spike in maritime incidents prompted G7 foreign ministers at a meeting earlier this week to urge the rebels to cease threats to international shipping and to release the Galaxy Leader.

In the latest apparent attack, Ambrey said the targeted vessel, en route from the United States to Singapore, had transited the Suez Canal five days ago

“The bulker was reportedly struck by a rocket and the crew retreated to the citadel,” it added.

“Numerous vessels passed the incident location today but no unusual manoeuvres were observed.” 

Ambrey said the attacked vessel’s ownership and management was linked to Dan David Ungar, a British citizen listed as an Israeli resident in Britain’s main companies directory. 

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