By Jack Phillips
The U.S. military said Sunday that its forces opened fire on Islamist Houthi fighters after they attacked a cargo ship in the Red Sea, sinking three ships and killing the crews onboard, in an escalation of the maritime conflict linked to the war in Gaza.
In a series of statements, the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) said Sunday the crew of the USS Gravely destroyer first shot down two anti-ship ballistic missiles fired at the Singapore-flagged Maersk Hangzhou late Saturday, after the vessel reported getting hit by a missile earlier that evening as it sailed through the Southern Red Sea.
The Maersk ship “issued a second distress call in less than 24 hours reporting being under attack by four Iranian-backed Houthi small boats,” CENTCOM wrote. “The small boats, originating from Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen, fired crew served and small arms weapons at” the commercial vessel, it said, adding that Houthi fighters tried to board the ship.
U.S. helicopters from the USS Eisenhower aircraft carrier and other U.S. Navy vessels responded before small Houthi boats fired upon the U.S. helicopters.
“The U.S. Navy helicopters returned fire in self-defense, sinking three of the four small boats, and killing the crews,” the statement said. “The fourth boat fled the area. There was no damage to U.S. personnel or equipment.”
The Houthis, a group that was taken off the U.S. State Department’s terrorist list in 2021, said via state-run media that its naval forces succeeded on Sunday in carrying out a “military operation” that targeted the Maersk container ship, with the media outlet claiming that it was “heading to the ports of occupied Palestine.”
A spokesman for the group added to the BBC that the Maersk refused to respond to warning calls from the Houthis.
The Houthis acknowledged that 10 of their members were killed in the confrontation and warned of consequences.
The events surrounding the Maersk Hangzhou represented the 23rd illegal attack by the Houthis on international shipping since Nov. 19, the Central Command said. It was the first time the U.S. Navy said its personnel had killed Houthi fighters since the Red Sea attacks started.
For over a month, Iran-backed Houthis have claimed attacks on ships in the Red Sea that they say are either linked to Israel or heading to Israeli ports. They say their attacks aim to end the Israeli air-and-ground offensive on Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip that was triggered by the Palestinian terrorist group’s Oct.7 surprise attack on southern Israel.
The Denmark-based shipping giant Maersk, owner of Maersk Hangzhou, said Sunday it would suspend shipping through the Red Sea again after the two attacks on its freighter.
“In light of the (most recent) incident—and to give time to investigate the details of the incident and assess the security situation further—it has been decided that all transits through the area will be postponed for the next 48 hours,” Maersk was quoted as saying by Danish public broadcaster DR.
Maersk confirmed to other media outlets that the Maersk Hangzhou was hit by an “unknown object” but was able to keep sailing. It was then attacked by four boats that prompted the U.S. Navy response, as well as the boat’s security team.
David Cameron, the British secretary of state for foreign affairs, wrote on X that he spoke with Iranian foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, about the recent attacks, adding that Iran has been supportive of both Hamas and the Houthis.
“I made clear that Iran shares responsibility for preventing these attacks given their longstanding support to the Houthis,” wrote Mr. Cameron, who previously served as the UK’s prime minister about a decade ago.
On Saturday, Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, the top commander of U.S. naval forces in the Middle East, told The Associated Press that the Houthis have shown no signs of ending their “reckless” attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea even as more nations join the international maritime mission to protect vessels in the vital waterway and trade traffic begins to pick up.
“I expect in the coming weeks we’re going to get additional countries,” Mr. Cooper said, noting Denmark’s recent announcement.
He also noted that Houthis have stepped up their usage of anti-ship ballistic missiles in the region, adding: “We are cleareyed that the Houthi reckless attacks will likely continue.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.