US helicopters sink three Houthi ships in the Red Sea, Pentagon says

U.S. military helicopters came under attack by Iranian-backed Houthi fighters in the Red Sea on Sunday morning and responded, sinking three Houthi ships and killing their occupants, U.S. Central Command said.

The episode came after a commercial container ship was attacked by Houthi fighters in small boats and issued a distress call, prompting US Navy helicopters to respond, the military said.

“In the process of issuing verbal calls to the small boats, the small boats fired at the US helicopters with small arms and crew-served weapons,” Central Command said in a statement on social media. “US Navy helicopters returned fire in self-defense, sinking three of the four small ships and killing the crews.”

It was the latest and perhaps deadliest such incident involving the Houthis, who control a large swath of northern Yemen, since Israel went to war with Hamas on October 7.

In solidarity with Hamas, which is also backed by Iran, the Houthis have launched dozens of missile and drone attacks on commercial ships and seized a ship linked to Israel. The attacks have prompted the United States and its allies to deploy warships to the Red Sea, which is crucial for global shipping.

In early December, the destroyer USS Carney shot down three drones during a sustained Houthi attack on commercial ships in the Red Sea, the Pentagon said. The US military has not directly attacked the Houthis in Yemen, fearful of an escalation that could cause the war in Gaza to further inflame the Middle East.

Sunday’s incident involved a container ship operated by shipping giant Maersk, which was transiting the southern Red Sea when it was attacked by the Houthis, according to statements from Central Command and Maersk.

The container ship, the Maersk Hangzhou, reported that it had been hit by a missile around 8:30 pm 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 U.S. ships responded to the ship’s distress call, and one of them, the USS Gravely, a destroyer, “shot down two anti-ship ballistic missiles fired from Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen toward the ships,” Central Command said. said on social media.

No injuries were reported and Maersk said its ship had continued its journey north.

Then on Sunday morning, four small boats piloted by Houthis attacked the Maersk ship, coming within about 20 meters of it, and attempted to board it, Central Command said in its subsequent statement. He said security officers had opened fire from the container ship, which issued another distress call, and that American helicopters from the Gravely and the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower flew to the scene, where they came under fire from the Houthis.

The US military did not say how it learned that the crew of the three ships it sank had died. The fourth ship fled the area, Central Command said, adding that no U.S. personnel were injured or any equipment was damaged in the episode.

The standoff came just days after Maersk said it would resume voyages through the Red Sea and Suez Canal. For about a week before that announcement, the company’s ships had been avoiding the area for safety reasons.

On Sunday, Maersk said in an emailed statement that it would halt “all transits through the area for the next 48 hours” while it investigates the attack and assesses security in the waterway. The crew of the Maersk Hangzhou, traveling from Singapore to Port Suez, were safe, the company said.

The attack was the 23rd by the Houthis in about six weeks, according to the United States. The incidents have led some companies to avoid the Red Sea, diverting their ships around the Cape of Good Hope, raising shipping rates even as longer voyages increase delays.

There were no immediate statements about the incident from the Houthis.

The United States announced this month that it had created a naval task force to try to ensure the safe passage of commercial ships in the Red Sea. Members of the security initiative, called Operation Prosperity Guardian, include Bahrain, Britain, France, Italy and the Netherlands.