Retaliatory Action: U.S. Forces Sink Houthi Boats, Inflicting Casualties on 10 Rebels

The United States repelled an attack by Iran-backed Houthi rebels on a Maersk container vessel in the Red Sea, destroying three of four boats and killing their crews. The naval battle occurred around 0330 GMT on Sunday as the attackers sought to board the Singapore-flagged Maersk Hangzhou, Maersk and U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) said. U.S. Navy helicopters fired back at the raiding vessels, causing them to sink, according to Central Command.

Helicopters from two U.S. warships — the USS Eisenhower and the USS Gravely — responded to an SOS call on Sunday from the container ship, which was about 55 nautical miles southwest of Yemen’s port city of Al Hudaydah, CENTCOM said in a statement. The warships’ helicopters shot at the “Iranian-backed Houthi small boats” in self-defense and sank them, it said. A fourth boat fled the area, Central Command added. No damage or injuries to U.S. personnel or equipment were reported.

A spokesman for the Houthi militia, which controls a large swath of Yemen and is battling to dislodge Saudi Arabia from the capital, Sanaa, said the group attacked the container ship because its crew refused to heed warning calls. The spokesman added that 10 Houthi soldiers were killed in the clash.

The clash was the latest in a series of raids on commercial shipping in the strategic Red Sea, which has been closed to most commercial traffic since the Houthis began targeting ships in September 2016. The attack also raises questions about how much longer a maritime task force created by Washington to protect cargo moving through the area can effectively deter attacks from the militia.

As a result of the confrontation, Maersk said transit through the Red Sea was suspended, and ships would instead be routed through the Bab al-Mandeb strait. The shipping company also warned that the incident could “potentially impact oil supply and the movement of humanitarian supplies.”

The U.S. Navy’s success in repelling the raiding ships marked the first time the military had shot down Houthi weapons in the Red Sea, Central Command said in a statement on Sunday. It added that it was “disappointed the Houthis continue to target international shipping and that they have not complied with the ceasefire agreement reached in November.”

In the aftermath of the naval battle, the top commander of U.S. naval forces in the Middle East criticized the Houthi attack and warned that they “show no signs of ending their reckless attacks on commerce.” The United States launched an international maritime mission earlier this month to protect commercial vessels in the Red Sea, dubbed Operation Prosperity Guardian. It comprises nine nations — including the United Kingdom, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, and Seychelles — to safeguard the passage of trade through the region. The U.S. has also conducted airstrikes on the militants’ targets in Yemen to end the violence and help restore Yemen’s economy.

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