The US has said it has destroyed anti-ship missiles and boats operated by Yemen’s Houthi rebels after a failed attempt by the Iran-backed group to board a container ship in the Red Sea.
Shipping giant Maersk suspended the passage of its vessels through the key Red Sea strait for 48 hours after its ship was targeted, the latest of two dozen attacks by Houthis on international shipping in six weeks.
The US Navy had responded to a distress call from the Maersk Hangzhou, a Singapore-flagged, Denmark-owned and operated container ship that reported coming under attack for a second time in 24 hours while transiting the Red Sea, the US Central Command (CENTCOM) said in a statement.
Houthis had fired on US helicopters, who “returned fire in self-defence”, sinking three of four small boats that had come within 20 meters of the ship, according to the statement.
Crews of the three were killed while the fourth boat fled the area, it added.
The Maersk, en route from Singapore to Egypt’s Port Suez, had made an earlier distress call after it was struck by a Houthi missile.
CENTCOM said that assault was the 23rd illegal attack by the Houthis on international shipping since 19 November.
The vessel appeared to be undamaged in the attack and “was able to continue its transit north”, Maersk, one of the world’s largest shipping companies, said in a statement.
The cargo ship was then fired on by four Houthi rebel ships that attempted to board the vessel, according to the shipping company.
“In light of the incident — and to allow time to investigate the details of the incident and assess the security situation further — it has been decided to delay all transits through the area for the next 48 hours,” it added.
The Houthis have repeatedly targeted vessels in the vital Red Sea shipping lane with strikes they say are in support of Palestinians in Gaza, where Israel is battling militant group Hamas.
The attacks endanger a transit route that carries up to 12% of global trade, prompting the US to set up a multinational naval task force this month to protect Red Sea shipping.
The latest round of the Israel-Hamas conflict began when the Palestinian militant group carried out a shock cross-border attack from Gaza on 7 October that killed about 1,140 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.
The US rushed military aid to support Israel, which has carried out a relentless campaign in Gaza that has killed at least 21,672 people, also mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.
Those deaths have sparked widespread anger in the Middle East and provided an impetus for attacks by armed groups across the region that are opposed to Israel.
US forces in Iraq and Syria have also repeatedly come under fire from drone and rocket attacks that Washington says are being carried out by Iran-backed armed groups.