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US forces shoot down ballistic missiles in Red Sea

US Navy Vice Adm Brad Cooper, who heads the Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet (Jon Gambrell/AP)
US Navy Vice Adm Brad Cooper, who heads the Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet (Jon Gambrell/AP)

The US military said on Sunday that it shot down two anti-ship ballistic missiles fired towards a container ship by Yemen’s Houthi rebels in the Red Sea.

Hours later, four boats tried to attack the same ship, but US forces opened fire, killing several of the armed crews, the US Central Command (Centcom) said. No-one was injured on the ship.

The Houthis acknowledged that 10 of their fighters were killed in the confrontation and warned of consequences.

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, Centcom said in a statement.

The USS Gravely and USS Laboon responded to the call for help, and the Denmark-owned vessel was reportedly seaworthy and no injuries were noted, the statement added.

Red Sea Shipping
A 20mm Phalanx CIWS weapons defence cannon mounted on the US Navy destroyer USS Gravely (John C Clark/AP)

“This is the 23rd illegal attack by the Houthis on international shipping since November 19,” Centcom said.

In another statement, Centcom said the same ship issued an additional distress call about a second attack “by four Iranian-backed Houthi small boats”.

The attackers fired small arms weapons at the Maersk Hangzhou, getting to within about 65ft (20m) of the vessel, Centcom said.

A contract-embarked security team on the ship returned fire, the central command said.

US helicopters from the USS Dwight D Eisenhower aircraft carrier and Gravely responded to the distress call and, while issuing verbal warnings to the attackers, the small boat crews opened fire on the helicopters using small arms, the statement said.

“The US Navy helicopters returned fire in self-defence,” sinking three of the four boats, killing the crews, while the fourth boat fled the area, Cencom said, and no damage to US personnel or equipment was reported.

The Denmark-based shipping giant Maersk, owner of Maersk Hangzhou, said on Sunday it would suspend shipping through the Red Sea again after the two attacks on its freighter.

“In light of the (most recent) incident — and to give time to investigate the details of the incident and assess the security situation further — it has been decided that all transits through the area will be postponed for the next 48 hours,” Maersk was quoted as saying by the Danish public broadcaster DR.

The Iran-backed Houthis have claimed attacks on ships in the Red Sea that they say are either linked to Israel or heading to Israeli ports.

They say their attacks aim to end Israel’s air and ground offensive targeting the Gaza Strip following the attack by the Palestinian militant group Hamas on October 7.

On Saturday, the top commander of US naval forces in the Middle East said Houthi rebels 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 to counter the attacks just over 10 days ago, 1,200 merchant ships have travelled through the Red Sea region, and none has been hit by drone or missile strikes, Vice Admiral Brad Cooper said in an Associated Press interview.

In Washington, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council sidestepped a question about the possibility of a pre-emptive strike against the Houthis to safeguard commercial shipping in the vital waterway.

“I won’t say what’s on or off the table right now,” John Kirby told ABC’s “Good Morning America,” adding, “We’re going to do what we have to do to protect shipping.”

He said the US has “significant national security interests in the region” and “we’re going to put the kind of forces we need in the region to protect those interests and we’re going to act in self-defence going forward”.

He said the US has made it clear to the Houthis that “we take these threats seriously and we’re going to make the right decisions going forward”.