Four vessels from Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen fired on the Maersk Hangzhou and got within 20 metres of the ship.
Helicopters were launched from US warships and were fired at by the Houthi boats before they sank three of the four vessels, killing the crews. The fourth boat fled the area, US Central Command (Centcom) said.
Before the attack by the small boats, the Singapore-flagged Maersk Hangzhou reported that it had already been hit by a missile on Saturday night while transiting the southern Red Sea and requested assistance.
US ships the USS Gravely and USS Laboon responded to the call for help, and the Denmark-owned vessel was found to be seaworthy. The US military said that two anti-ship ballistic missiles fired towards the container ship by the Houthi militants were also shot down at that time.
Centcom said it was the 23rd attack on international shipping since 19 November. The Iranian-backed Yemeni Houthi have claimed that their attacks on the vital shipping lane are directed at vessels linked to Israel, in response to the war in Gaza.
Maersk, one of the world’s major cargo shippers, said on Sunday it would delay all transits through the area for 48 hours, after the Maersk Hangzhou was struck about 55 nautical miles southwest of the city of al-Hodeidah in Yemen.
Hours after the Maersk Hangzhou sent its initial distress call, it issued another in relation to the attack “by four Iranian-backed Houthi small boats”.
US helicopters from the USS Dwight D Eisenhower aircraft carrier and the USS Gravely responded to the distress call, and while they were issuing verbal warnings to the attackers, the small-boat crews opened fire on the helicopters using small arms, a Centcom statement said. “The US Navy helicopters returned fire in self-defence,” it added. No one aboard the Maersk Hangzhou was injured.
The Houthi are allies of Hamas, whose militants attacked inside Israel on 7 October, killing 1,200 people and taking another 240 hostage. In the wake of the attack, Israel vowed to eradicate Hamas, who control Gaza, starting an aerial bombardment, blockade and ground offensive that health officials in the territory say has killed more than 21,000 people.
The Houthi say their attacks are intended to end Israel’s air and ground operations against Gaza. The attacks have disrupted world trade, with major shipping companies taking the longer and costlier route around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope rather than transiting the Suez Canal.
The Red Sea is the entry point for ships using the Suez Canal, which handles about 12 per cent of global trade and is vital for the movement of goods between Asia and Europe.
On Saturday, the top commander of US naval forces in the Middle East, Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, said the Houthi have shown no signs of ending their “reckless” attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea, even as more nations join the international maritime mission to protect vessels in the vital waterway and trade traffic begins to pick up.
Since the Pentagon announced Operation Prosperity Guardian – which involves the UK – to counter the attacks almost two weeks ago, 1,200 merchant ships have travelled through the Red Sea region, and none have been hit by drone or missile strikes, Vice Admiral Cooper said.
Britain’s foreign secretary, David Cameron, said on Sunday that he had asserted in a call with Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian that Iran shares responsibility for preventing Houthi attacks in the Red Sea.
“I made clear that Iran shares responsibility for preventing these attacks, given their long-standing support to the Houthis,” he said in a post on social media site X, adding that the attacks “threaten innocent lives and the global economy”.
Associated Press contributed to this report
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