American military helicopters came under fire from Iranian-backed Houthi fighters in the Red Sea on Sunday morning and shot back, sinking three Houthi boats and killing those aboard, U.S. Central Command said.
The episode was a significant escalation in the Houthis’ attacks in the Red Sea, where they have launched dozens of missile and drone attacks against commercial ships in response to Israel’s war against another Iran-backed group, Hamas. It was the first time since the Israel-Hamas war that the Yemen-based Houthis have been known to directly target U.S. forces, which have deployed to the region to protect vessels transiting a crucial waterway for global shipping.
The clash occurred after a commercial container ship was attacked by Houthi fighters in small boats and issued a distress call, prompting U.S. Navy helicopters to respond, the American military said.
“In the process of issuing verbal calls to the small boats, the small boats fired upon the U.S. helicopters with crew-served weapons and small arms,” Central Command said in a statement on social media. “The U.S. Navy helicopters returned fire in self-defense, sinking three of the four small boats, and killing the crews.”
In recent months, American forces have launched retaliatory attacks in Syria and Iraq against Iran-backed militias that have targeted U.S. troops, and the Pentagon has acknowledged that militants were killed in at least one of those strikes. But the U.S. military has not struck directly at the Houthis in Yemen, where they control a large swath of the country’s north, wary of an escalation that could cause the war in Gaza to further inflame the Middle East.
In early December, the destroyer U.S.S. Carney shot down three drones during a sustained Houthi attack on commercial ships in the Red Sea, the Pentagon said. One of the drones was headed in the direction of the Carney, though it was not clear at the time if the destroyer was the intended target.
The incident on Sunday involved a container ship operated by the shipping giant Maersk, which was transiting the southern Red Sea when it came under attack by Houthis, according to statements by Central Command and by Maersk.
The container ship, the Maersk Hangzhou, reported that it had been struck by a missile at about 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, when it was about 55 nautical miles southwest of Hudaydah, Yemen. The crew “observed a flash on the deck,” Maersk said in an emailed statement.
Two American vessels responded to the ship’s distress call, and one of them, the U.S.S. Gravely, a destroyer, “shot down two anti-ship ballistic missiles fired from Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen toward the ships,” Central Command said on social media.
No injuries were reported, and Maersk said that its vessel had continued traveling north.
Then, on Sunday morning, four small boats piloted by Houthis attacked the Maersk ship, getting to within about 20 yards of the vessel, and attempted to board it, Central Command said in its subsequent statement. It said that security officers had opened fire from the container vessel, which issued another distress call, and that U.S. helicopters from the Gravely and the U.S.S. Eisenhower, an aircraft carrier, flew to the scene, where they came under fire from the Houthis.
The U.S. military did not indicate how it knew that the crew members of the three boats it sank had died. The fourth boat fled the area, Central Command said, adding that no U.S. personnel were harmed or equipment damaged in the episode.
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 an emailed 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 traveling from Singapore to Port Suez, was safe, the company said.
The attack was the 23rd by the Houthis in about six weeks, according to the United States. 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 the longer voyages increase delays.
There was no immediate statement on the incident from the Houthis. A Houthi military spokesman, Yahya Sarea, recently said that the group would continue its attacks “until the Israeli aggression against our steadfast brothers in the Gaza Strip stops.”
The United States announced this month that it had set up a naval task force to try to ensure safe passage for commercial ships in the Red Sea. The members of the security initiative, called Operation Prosperity Guardian, include Bahrain, Britain, France, Italy and the Netherlands.