DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Commercial ships came under attack Sunday by drones and missiles in the Red Sea and a US warship there opened fire in self-defense as part of an hours-long assault claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, officials said.
The attack potentially marked a major escalation in a series of maritime attacks in the Mideast linked to the Israel-Hamas war as multiple vessels found themselves in the crosshairs of a single Houthi assault for the first time in the conflict.
“Today, there were four attacks against three separate commercial vessels operating in international waters in the southern Red Sea,” CENTCOM said in a statement later Sunday.
“The Arleigh-Burke Class destroyer USS Carney responded to the distress calls from the ships and provided assistance,” and shot down three drones that were heading for the warship during the day, the statement said.
The Carney is an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer that has already shot down multiple rockets the Houthis have fired toward Israel so far in the war.
CENTCOM said the attacks “represent a direct threat to international commerce and maritime security.”
“We also have every reason to believe that these attacks, while launched by the Houthis in Yemen, are fully enabled by Iran. The United States will consider all appropriate responses in full coordination with its international allies and partners,” it said.
The Carney responded after hearing from the Bahamas-flagged bulk carrier Unity Explorer that it was under attack by missile fire, the official said. The cargo ship later reported minor damage from another missile from a rebel-held area.
Panamanian-flagged M/V Number 9 — a bulk carrier — reported damage but no casualties caused by a missile from Yemen, while the M/V Sophie II, which also flies Panama’s flag, said it was struck as well but suffered no significant harm.
The Carney wasn’t damaged in the attack and no injuries were reported on board, said a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss early details of a military operation.
It shot down two drones during the attack, one in self-defense and another after checking on the Unity Explorer, the official said.
A second US official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said the attack began about 10 a.m. in Sanaa, Yemen, and had gone on for as much as five hours.
The British military earlier said there had been a suspected drone attack and explosions in the Red Sea, without elaborating.
The Unity Explorer was “struck by a rocket” while sailing south around 35 nautical miles off Yemen’s western coast, maritime security firm Ambrey said, citing reports. “The affected vessel was issuing distress calls relating to piracy/missile attack.”
The security company noted reports that “an international naval asset in the vicinity of the incident” was likely proceeding to the ship’s location.
The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (agency, run by Britain’s Royal Navy, said it had received “a report of Uncrewed Aerial Systems (UAS) activity including a potential explosion… originating from the direction of Yemen,” and advised vessels in the area to “exercise caution.”
Ambrey said the targeted vessel — en route from the United States to Singapore — had transited the Suez Canal five days ago. “The bulker was reportedly struck by a rocket and the crew retreated to the citadel,” it added.
“Numerous vessels passed the incident location today but no unusual maneuvers were observed.”
Ambrey said the attacked vessel’s ownership and management was linked to Dan David Ungar, a British citizen listed as an Israeli resident in Britain’s main companies directory.
Israeli media identified Ungar as being the son of Israeli shipping billionaire Abraham “Rami” Ungar.
The Houthis have been launching a series of attacks on vessels in the Red Sea, as well as launching drones and missiles targeting Israel amid the war.
Houthi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yahya Saree claimed the attacks, saying the first vessel was hit by a missile and the second by a drone while in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait that links the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.
Saree did not mention any US warship being involved in the attack.
“The Yemeni armed forces continue to prevent Israeli ships from navigating the Red Sea (and Gulf of Aden) until the Israeli aggression against our steadfast brothers in the Gaza Strip stops,” Saree said. “The Yemeni armed forces renew their warning to all Israeli ships or those associated with Israelis that they will become a legitimate target if they violate what is stated in this statement.”
Saree also identified the first vessel as the Unity Explorer, which is owned by a British firm that includes Dan David Ungar, who lives in Israel, as one of its officers. The second was a Panamanian-flagged container ship called Number 9, which is linked to Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement. Managers for the two vessels could not be immediately reached for comment.
Global shipping had increasingly been targeted as the Israel-Hamas war threatens to become a wider regional conflict — even as a truce briefly halted fighting and Hamas freed civilian Israeli and foreign hostages, while Israel released Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, most on terror-related charges, paused fighting in Gaza, and allowed more humanitarian aid to flow to Gaza.
The collapse of the truce and the resumption of punishing Israeli airstrikes and ground maneuvers in Gaza had raised the risk of the seaborne attacks resuming.
In November, the Houthis seized a vehicle transport ship also linked to Israel in the Red Sea off Yemen. The rebels still hold the vessel near the port city of Hodeida. Missiles also landed near another US warship last week after it assisted a vessel linked to Israel that had briefly been seized by gunmen.
However, the Houthis had not directly targeted the Americans for some time, further raising the stakes in the growing maritime conflict. In 2016, the US launched Tomahawk cruise missiles that destroyed three coastal radar sites in Houthi-controlled territory to retaliate for missiles being fired at US Navy ships at the time.