US sinks 3 Houthi attack boats as gunmen try to board container ship in Red Sea

Two vessels answer call for aid from ship struck in transit; CENTCOM marks 23rd Houthi attack on shipping since Oct. 19; naval commander expects attacks to continue

A Maersk container ship near Sir Abu Nuair island off Dubai on June 4, 2022. (Karim Sahib/AFP)
Illustrative: A Maersk container ship near Sir Abu Nuair island off Dubai on June 4, 2022. (Karim SAHIB / AFP)

US helicopters sank three boats carrying Houthi gunmen who attacked a container ship that was transiting the Red Sea, the US military said Sunday.

A US warship also shot down two ballistic missiles fired from Yemen, the US Central Command (CENTCOM) said in a statement.

It said that at 6:30 a.m. local time, the Maersk Hangzhou, a Singapore-flagged, Denmark-owned and -operated container ship issued a second distress call after earlier reporting that it was hit by a missile.

The ship signaled that it was under attack by “four Iranian-backed Houthi small boats” CENTCOM posted on X, formerly Twitter.

It said the boats fired small arms at the Maersk Hangzhou, approached to within 20 meters of the vessel, and tried to board it. A contract-embarked security team returned fire at the Houthis.

Helicopters from the USS Eisenhower and USS Gravely responded to the distress call and “issued verbal calls to the small boats.” However, the small boats then fired at the helicopters with small arms.

“The US Navy helicopters returned fire in self-defense, sinking three of the four small boats, and killing the crews. The fourth boat fled the area. There was no damage to US personnel or equipment,” the statement said.

On Saturday evening, the USS Gravely shot down two anti-ship ballistic missiles fired from Yemen as it responded to a call for help from the Maersk Hangzhou, CENTCOM said. The container ship reported at the time that it was hit by a missile, though was still seaworthy and with no injuries to those onboard.

While responding, the Gravely shot down two other missiles, which were fired “toward the ships,” CENTCOM said.

The missiles were launched from territory controlled by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, CENTCOM said describing it as the “23rd illegal attack by the Houthis on international shipping” since October 19.

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 the terror group Hamas.

The attacks by the Yemeni rebels — who have said they are targeting Israel and Israeli-linked vessels — are endangering a transit route that carries up to 12 percent of global trade, prompting the United States to set up a multinational naval task force earlier this month to protect Red Sea shipping.

The narrow Bab el-Mandeb Strait connects the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea and then the Suez Canal. The crucial trade route links markets in Asia and Europe. The seriousness of the attacks, several of which have damaged vessels, led multiple shipping companies to order their vessels to hold in place and not enter the strait until the security situation improved. Some major shippers were sending their ships around Africa and the Cape of Good Hope, adding time and costs to the journeys.

To address the issue, the US initiated Operation Prosperity Guardian, an international naval protection force to guard ships transiting the Red Sea. Shipping company Maersk, which had also rerouted its ships, announced last week that it would return to using the Red Sea in light of the protection flotilla.

War broke out when Hamas-led terrorists poured into Israel from the land, air, and sea in a shock assault on October 7, brutally killing more than 1,200 people and seizing some 240 hostages.

In response to the attack, the deadliest in the country’s history, Israel vowed to eliminate Hamas from Gaza and end its 16-year rule and launched an aerial campaign and subsequent ground operation.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza says that over 21,000 people have been killed in the Palestinian territory in the war. Figures issued by Hamas cannot be independently verified and include both civilians and terror operatives killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires.

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.

Since Operation Prosperity Guardian was announced by the US just over 10 days ago, 1,200 merchant ships have traveled through the Red Sea region, and none has been hit by drone or missile strikes, Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, commander of US naval forces in the Middle East, said in an Associated Press interview before Saturday’s incident.

File: US Navy Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, who heads the Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, speaks at an event at the International Defense Exhibition and Conference in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, February 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

Since the operation started, the Houthis have stepped up their use of anti-ship ballistic missiles, Cooper said. “We are clear-eyed that the Houthi reckless attacks will likely continue,” he said.

He said additional countries are expected to sign on. Denmark was the latest, announcing Friday it plans to send a frigate to the mission that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced during a visit to Bahrain, where the Navy’s 5th Fleet is based, saying that “this is an international challenge that demands collective action.”

Currently there are five warships from the United States, France, and the United Kingdom patrolling the waters of the southern Red Sea and the western Gulf of Aden, said Cooper, who heads the 5th Fleet. Since the operation started, the ships have shot down a total of 17 drones and four anti-ship ballistic missiles, he said.

Just two days ago, the USS Mason, a Navy destroyer, downed a drone and anti-ship ballistic missile that was fired by the Houthis, according to US Central Command. The US said the 22nd attack on international shipping by the Houthis since October 19 caused no damage to any of the 18 ships in the area or any reported injuries.

“I expect in the coming weeks we’re going to get additional countries,” Cooper said, noting Denmark’s recent announcement.

The US has said that more than 20 nations are participating, but a number of those nations have not acknowledged it publicly.

On Saturday, Austin discussed the ongoing illegal Houthi attacks in a call with The Netherlands’ Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren, according to the Pentagon. Both condemned the attacks as unacceptable and “profoundly destabilizing” to international order and global commerce, with Austin stressing that they constitute “a significant international problem that demands collective action.”

Cooper said the coalition is in direct communication with commercial ships to provide guidance on “maneuvering and the best practices to avoid being attacked,” and working closely with the shipping industry to coordinate security.

An international task force was set up in April 2022 to improve maritime security in the region. But Cooper said Operation Prosperity Guardian has more ships and a persistent presence to assist vessels.

The shipping company Maersk had announced earlier that it had decided to re-route its ships that have been paused for days outside the strait and Red Sea, and send them around Africa instead. Then Maersk announced on December 25 that it was going to resume sending ships through the strait, citing the operation. Cooper said another shipping company had also resumed using the route.

“Commerce is definitely flowing,” Cooper said.

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