Images of burning cargo ship from Sri Lanka in 2021 not attack on Israeli boat

8 December 2023
What was claimed

Images and videos show an Israeli cargo ship named Unity Explorer bombed by Yemen which has sunk in the Red Sea with its crew.

Our verdict

This is false. The footage shows a fire aboard a container ship off the coast of Sri Lanka in 2021. Houthi rebels in Yemen have claimed responsibility for an attack on a commercial shipping vessel called Unity Explorer on 3 December but it is not owned by Israel, did not sink and its crew were unharmed.

Multiple posts on Facebook have shared footage or stills from a video of a burning ship, claiming it is an Israeli cargo ship that has been destroyed and “sunk in the Red Sea”.

But the footage and photos are not of an Israeli ship or related to the current Israel-Gaza conflict. They are taken from videos of a fire onboard a container ship off the coast of Colombo, Sri Lanka in 2021. 

A chemical fire had caused an explosion on the X-Press Pearl ship in May 2021 which led to the Sri Lankan military being called in to respond to a distress call from the Singaporean vessel. The ship later sank in June, and was described as an “environmental disaster”.

Some posts sharing the footage, including on X (formerly Twitter), state that “Yemen bombed the Israeli cargo ship” which is named the “Unity Explorer”. Many of the posts also claim the ship has sunk in the Red Sea “with it’s sailors [sic]”.

While these images do not show this, they come amid real attacks on commercial ships. The Houthi rebel group in Yemen—not the Yemeni government—has claimed to have targeted two Israeli commercial vessels in the Red Sea with drone and missile attacks.

The ‘Unity Explorer’ named in the social media posts is a real ship that has reportedly been attacked by the Houthi group, but it is owned by a UK company, not Israel, and flies under the flag of the Bahamas.

The US military stated that three commercial vessels were attacked in international waters on 3 December, including Unity Explorer and the Bermuda and UK-owned Number 9 (Panamanian flagged), as well as another Panamanian flagged ship named Sophie II (owned by companies based in Panama and Japan). The Houthi group claimed attacks on the Unity Explorer and Number 9 vessel.

In a statement the US Central Command stated that its USS Carney warship shot down three drones while responding to distress calls from commercial ships in the area.

According to the statement, the Unity Explorer suffered minor damage while the Number 9 vessel also reported damage. There were no reported casualties among the crew of either ship. 

We have checked dozens of photos and videos in relation to the recent conflict in Israel and Gaza, many of which are miscaptioned, out of context or depict real events in other places. It’s important to consider whether something is genuine before sharing. Our guides to spotting misleading images and videos should help you to do this.

Photo courtesy of the European Space Agency

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