In a series of statements, the US Central Command said 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.Four small boats then attacked the same cargo ship with small arms fire early Sunday and rebels tried to board the vessel, the US Navy said. Next, the USS Gravely and helicopters from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier responded to the Maersk Hangzhou’s distress call and issued verbal warnings to the attackers, who responded by firing on the helicopters. “The US Navy helicopters returned fire in self-defence,” sinking three of the four boats and killing the people on board while the fourth boat fled the area, the US Central Command said. No harm to US personnel or equipment, or casualties from the cargo ship, were reported.
The events surrounding the Maersk Hangzhou represented the 23rd illegal attack by the Houthis on international shipping since November 19, the Central Command said. It was the first time the US 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 military offensive in Gaza that was triggered by Hamas’ Oct.7 attack in southern Israel.
The weekend attack was the latest and perhaps deadliest such incident involving the Houthis, who control a large swath of northern Yemen. In early Dec, the USS Carney destroyer shot down three drones during a sustained Houthi attack on commercial ships in the Red Sea, the Pentagon said. The US military has not struck directly at the Houthis in Yemen, wary of an escalation that could cause the war in Gaza to further inflame West Asia.
The clash came just days after Maersk said that it was resuming voyages through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. For about a week before that announcement, the company’s ships had been avoiding the area because of safety concerns. On Sunday, Maersk said in a statement that it would pause “all transits through the area for the next 48 hours” as it investigates the attack and assesses security in the waterway. The crew of the Maersk Hangzhou, which was travelling from Singapore to Port Suez, was safe, the company said.
The incidents have prompted some companies to avoid the Red Sea, rerouting their vessels around the Cape of Good Hope, pushing up shipping rates even as longer voyages increase delays. The US announced this month that it had set up a naval taskforce to try to ensure safe passage for commercial ships in the Red Sea. The members of the initiative, Operation Prosperity Guardian, include Bahrain, UK, France, Italy and the Netherlands.