The guided-missile destroyer USS Mason steams in the Atlantic Ocean in July 2021.

The guided-missile destroyer USS Mason steams in the Atlantic Ocean in July 2021. (Bill Mesta/U.S. Navy)

WASHINGTON — Five hijackers captured by U.S. forces after attempting to take over a commercial ship off the coast of Yemen on Sunday are likely Somalis, not Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, the Pentagon said Monday.

“The five armed individuals … they’re currently aboard the USS Mason. We’re continuing to assess but initial indications have that these five individuals are Somalis,” said Air Force Brig. Gen Pat Ryder, the Pentagon’s top spokesman. “It’s clearly a piracy-related incident.”

The attackers attempted to seize a Liberian-flagged tanker called the Central Park carrying a cargo of phosphoric acid. U.S. Central Command said Sunday that its forces and allies, including the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Mason, responded to a distress call from the tanker during the attack. The five hijackers abandoned their attack and attempted to flee in a small boat.

The Mason pursued the assailants and they surrendered eventually.

The Yemen government blamed Houthi rebels for the attack.

Within two hours after the attack on the Central Park, two ballistic missiles fired from a Houthi-controlled part of Yemen landed about 10 nautical miles from the Mason and the tanker. The U.S. destroyer tracked the missiles but did not attempt to shoot them down, Ryder said. It was still not clear whether the ballistic missiles were aiming for the Mason, he said.

The Houthis, who now control Yemen’s capital Sanaa, did not acknowledge the seizure or the missile attack.

“We know they’re not Houthi,” Ryder said about the hijackers.

Ryder also said there were three Chinese navy ships in the area but they did not respond to the Central Park’s distress call. Those ships are supposedly there as part of a counter piracy mission, Ryder said. According to international maritime law, any ship in the vicinity is required to respond to a distress call.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Matthew Adams covers the Defense Department at the Pentagon. His past reporting experience includes covering politics for The Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle and The News and Observer. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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