U.S. Navy helicopters killed an unspecified number of Houthi militants and sunk three of their boats in self defense early Sunday after the Yemen-based rebels fired at troops coming to the aid of a commercial ship, the military said.
Iranian-backed rebels aboard four small boats attacked the Singapore-flagged, Denmark-owned and operated Maersk Hangzou for the second time that day, firing crew-served and small arms weapons at the commercial ship’s crew and attempting to board, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) said in a statement. While responding to the Hangzhou’s distress call, U.S. helicopters from the nearby aircraft carrier and destroyer came under fire themselves, destroying three of the boats and sending the fourth to scramble away.
The incident is the first time the Pentagon has confirmed Houthi militants directly targetd American military personnel.
“U.S. helicopters from the USS EISENHOWER (CVN 69) and GRAVELY (DDG 107) responded to the distress call and 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. The U.S. Navy helicopters returned fire in self-defense, sinking three of the four small boats, and killing the crews,” CENTCOM said.
There was no damage to U.S. personnel or equipment, CENTCOM confirmed.
A contracted security team on the Maersk also joined in the firefight, according to CENTCOM.
The evening prior, a missile from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen struck the Hangzhou while it was transiting the Southern Red Sea, according to CENTCOM. The Hangzhou issued a distress call and the destroyers USS Gravely and USS Laboon responded, but there were no reported injuries.
The Gravely shot down two more anti-ship ballistic missiles the Houthis fired toward the “ships” while rendering assistance, CENTCOM said.
“This is the 23rd illegal attack by the Houthis on international shipping since Nov. 19,” the military wrote.
After the two incidents, Maersk, which had just returned to the Red Sea after pausing transits through the Bab el-Mandeb due to the increased Houthi threat, called a 48-hour suspension of shipping through the critical strait, AFP News reported. The Hangzhou was en route from Singapore to Port Suez in Egypt.
“In light of the incident — and to allow time to investigate the details of the incident and assess the security situation further — it has been decided to delay all transits through the area for the next 48 hours,” Maersk said in a statement, according to AFP.
CENTCOM welcomed on Saturday Denmark’s plan to deploy a frigate to the Red Sea in support of Operation Prosperity Guardian, a U.S.-led multinational coalition aimed at protecting shipping through the Red Sea and deterring future attacks.
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