Armed Forces Minister lands in Gibraltar for Diamond visit

By Chronicle staff and PA

UK Armed Forces Minister James Heappey arrived in Gibraltar on Tuesday for an unannounced visit during which he is expected to meet crew on HMS Diamond, the Royal Navy destroyer currently docked in Gibraltar after deployment to the Red Sea to protect commercial shipping.

Mr Heappey arrived in Gibraltar mid-afternoon on a Royal Air Force passenger jet and was greeted on the tarmac by Commodore Tom Guy, the Commander British Forces.

The UK Government released no details on the visit, which comes against the backdrop of increased military activity here as the Rock provides logistical support to Royal Navy vessels operating as part of an international coalition to protect shipping in the Red Sea.

Mr Heappey’s arrival in Gibraltar came a day after news that a UK-registered cargo ship had been attacked by Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

The UK Government condemned the attack on the MV Rubymar as “reckless”.

During his visit, Mr Heappey will meet crew on HMS Diamond, which is in Gibraltar for maintenance and resupply after several months in the Red Sea.

HMS Diamond came under fire in three separate attacks by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, successfully destroying nine drones using her Sea Viper missile system and guns. When it docked in Gibraltar, the destroyer was sporting WWII-style kill markings on its superstructure.

The destroyer was relieved by the frigate HMS Richmond, which also stopped off in Gibraltar on its way to the Middle East.

The ships are part of Operation Prosperity Guardian, an international task force to protect merchant shipping in the what the navy described as “a high threat area”.

“The situation in the region is fraught, and ships in the force are firing on a daily basis,” said Commander Peter Evans, HMS Diamond’s Commanding Officer, at the time of the handover.

While in Gibraltar, Mr Heappey is also expected to meet the Governor, Vice Admiral Sir David Steel, and Chief Minister Fabian Picardo.

The MV Rubymar came under a missile attack from the militant group off Yemen’s coast on Monday, according to the UK Government.

None of the 24-person crew, who were forced to abandon the vessel as it took on water but were rescued by a Djibouti-bound Singapore-flagged container ship, are UK or US nationals, it is understood.

Earlier, a Houthi military spokesperson said the Rubymar sustained “catastrophic” damage and is at risk of sinking in the Gulf of Aden.

Defence Secretary Grant Shapps said he would make a judgment “based on the reality on the ground” when asked if more Royal Navy ships should be sent to the Red Sea.

A UK Government spokesperson said: “We condemn this reckless attack by the Houthis against the MV Rubymar, a Belize-flagged cargo ship.”

“Current reports suggest no casualties. Nearby coalition vessels are already on the scene and HMS Richmond continues to patrol in the Red Sea to help protect commercial shipping.

“We have been clear that any attacks on commercial shipping are completely unacceptable and that the UK and our allies reserve the right to respond appropriately.”

The ship is believed to be Lebanese-operated and UK-registered, and was travelling through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait connecting the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden when it was targeted.

Mr Shapps told the Commons ministers will “always look at what’s happening… in the Red Sea. I have been there to see, to meet the crews myself, and will make a judgment based on the reality on the ground.

“We do know, and we welcome now the input from a conglomeration of EU countries who are coming to join Prosperity Guardian as well.”

He was referring to the launch of a naval mission by the European Union on Monday to help protect shipping against attacks in the Red Sea.

Houthi military spokesperson Yahya Sare’e earlier said in a statement posted to social media site X: “The ship suffered catastrophic damages and came to a complete halt.

“As a result of the extensive damage the ship suffered, it is now at risk of potential sinking in the Gulf of Aden.”

He added that the crew were safe.

The Iran-backed Houthis also claimed to have shot down a US drone in the port city of Hodeidah.

The UK’s Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) on Sunday said it had received a report of an incident 35 nautical miles south of Al Mukha, a town on Yemen’s Red Sea coast.

The ship, which it did not identify, was damaged after “an explosion in close proximity to the vessel,” UKMTO said, adding that “authorities are investigating”.

“Military authorities report crew have abandoned the vessel. Vessel at anchor and all crew are safe.”

The Prime Minister’s spokesman said on Monday: “Clearly we condemn any attacks by the Houthis against commercial civilian ships…”

“As the PM has said, we will not hesitate to act to protect freedom of navigation and lives at sea.”

Separately on Monday, the UKMTO and security firm Ambrey said another vessel, a Greek-flagged, US-owned bulk carrier, had come under attack in the Gulf of Aden, with the crew reported to be safe.

The UK and the US have carried out joint air strikes against Houthi rebels in recent weeks in order to stop attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea.

Since November, the Iran-backed militants have repeatedly targeted ships in the Red Sea in what they say is an effort to support Palestinians in the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

They have often targeted vessels with tenuous or no clear links to Israel, imperilling shipping in a key route for trade between Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

The dangers have forced many vessels to divert around the southern tip of Africa instead of using the Suez Canal, increasing costs and lengthening delivery times.