The US Navy has shot down two anti-ship missiles and sunk three small boats after responding to distress calls from a container ship that was attacked twice by Houthi rebels as it crossed the Red Sea over the weekend.
The US Central Command (Centcom) said it dispatched two destroyers, the USS Gravely and the USS Laboon, after the container ship Maersk Hangzhou reported being struck by a missile at 8.30pm local time on Saturday.
“While responding, the USS Gravely shot down two anti-ship ballistic missiles fired from Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen toward the ships,” Centcom said.
Ten hours later, the Singapore-flagged, Denmark-owned and operated container ship issued a second distress call, saying it was under attack from Houthi gunmen in four small boats.
“The small boats, originating from Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen, fired small arms weapons at the Maersk Hangzhou, getting to within 20 metres of the vessel, and attempted to board the vessel,” Centcom said. “A contract embarked security team on the Maersk Hangzhou returned fire.”
Helicopters from the USS Eisenhower aircraft carrier and the USS Gravely came under fire from the small boats as they issued verbal warnings, leading them to fire back.
“The US Navy helicopters returned fire in self-defence, sinking three of the four small boats and killing the crews,” the Centcom statement added. “The fourth boat fled the area. There was no damage to US personnel or equipment.”
The UK Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) organisation said it received a report of an incident in the Red Sea about 55 nautical miles south-west of the Yemeni port of Hodeidah. The master of the ship reported “a loud bang accompanied by a flash on the port bow of the vessel” and several explosions in the area.
The Danish shipping company Maersk later said the crew of the Maersk Hangzhou safe and there was no indication of fire onboard the vessel, which was fully manoeuvrable and continuing its journey north to Port Suez. It added that it would delay all transits through the area for 48 hours.
Centcom said the incident was the 23rd illegal attack on international shipping by Iran-backed Houthi rebels since 19 November.
The Houthis have targeted vessels in the vital Red Sea shipping lane with strikes that they say are in support of Palestinians in Gaza, where Israel is waging war to root out the terrorist group Hamas.
Several shipping lines have suspended operations through the Red Sea in response to the attacks, instead taking the longer journey around Africa.
The Yemeni rebels have said they are targeting Israel and Israeli-linked vessels. Earlier this month, the US set up a multinational naval taskforce called Operation Prosperity Guardian to protect the Red Sea transit route, which carries up to 12% of global trade.
On Saturday, the commander of US naval forces in the Middle East said Houthi rebels had shown no signs of ending their “reckless” attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea even as more nations joined the international maritime mission to protect vessels in the waterway and trade traffic began to pick up.
Since the Pentagon announced Operation Prosperity Guardian, 1,200 merchant ships have travelled through the Red Sea region, and none have been hit by drone or missile strikes, Vice Admiral Brad Cooper said in an interview with the Associated Press news agency.