Dated footage of freighter fire falsely linked to Israel-Hamas war

Yemen's Iran-backed Huthi rebels hit commercial cargo ships in the Red Sea in December 2023, including the vessel Unity Explorer. But social media posts purporting to show video of the strike are false; the clip depicts a 2021 chemical fire on a boat in Sri Lanka.

"Yemen bombed the Israeli cargo ship 'Unity Explorer' American military ships and other Western bases came to Djibouti trying to rescue the Israeli cargo ship Unity Explorer, which has now sunk in the Red Sea," says a December 3, 2023 post on X, formerly known as Twitter.

The post includes a video of a cargo boat on fire, with large plumes of smoke rising into the air.

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Screenshot of an X post taken December 4, 2023

Other examples of the claim have circulated in several languages on X.

Huthi rebels struck multiple commercial ships on December 3 -- including the Unity Explorer, according to US Central Command (CENTCOM)(archived here). A US destroyer intervened, shooting down multiple drones over the Red Sea to assist the vessels.

The Huthis claimed responsibility for attacks on the Unity Explorer and Number 9 in a statement on social media, saying the ships were Israeli and that attacks on the country's vessels would continue "until the Israeli aggression against our steadfast brothers in the Gaza Strip stops."

Israel declared war on Hamas after the militant group's October 7 attacks that killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, according to Israeli authorities, and saw around 240 hostages taken.

The latest toll from the Hamas-run government media office said more than 16,200 people in Gaza, most of them women and children, had been killed.

The Huthis have seized cargo and launched a series of drones and missiles toward Israel in recent weeks. But the footage shared online does not show the attack on the Unity Explorer, which CENTCOM says is a Bahamas-flagged, United Kingdom-owned vessel.

A reverse image search using still images from the video surfaced the same footage in a 2021 YouTube video (archived here) and on Newsflare with the caption: "Crew evacuated as cargo ship off Sri Lanka continues to burn" (archived here).

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Screenshot of the Newsflare website taken December 5, 2023

On May 20, 2021, the X-Press Pearl, a container ship loaded with chemicals, caught fire sparking a marine ecological disaster as the blaze raged for 13-days before an international operation was able to extinguish the inferno. The incident damaged Sri Lanka's marine environment with unprecedented pollution and led to several lawsuits.

AFP has debunked other misinformation about the Israel-Hamas war here.

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