Iran-backed Houthi rebels operating in Yemen are showing no signs of scaling back attacks on commercial ships traversing the Red Sea, the U.S. Navy said.
Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, the top commander of U.S. naval forces in the Middle East, told The Associated Press that these attacks have continued despite the formation of an international maritime mission to protect vessels in the vital waterway.
Cooper’s comments come after the U.S. military said Saturday it shot down two anti-ship ballistic missiles fired toward a Maersk container ship in the Red Sea after the ship was hit by a missile. Two Navy destroyers responded to the call for help, and the Denmark-owned vessel was reportedly seaworthy, and no injuries were noted, according to U.S. Central Command.
Hours later, four Houthi boats fired at the same ship and tried to board. U.S. forces on two helicopters responded to the distress call and were also fired upon before they sank three of the Houthi vessels and killed the crews. The fourth boat fled the area. No damage to U.S. personnel or equipment was reported.
There have been about two dozen attacks on international shipping by the Houthis since Oct. 19. The Houthis say their attacks are aimed at Israel-linked ships to stop the Israeli offensive in Gaza.
Earlier this month, the U.S. announced the formation of Operation Prosperity Guardian, an international initiative to protect commercial ships traveling through the Red Sea. Since then, approximately 1,200 merchant ships have traveled through the region, and none had been hit by drone or missile strikes until Saturday.
The narrow Bab el-Mandeb Strait connects the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea and then the Suez Canal. The crucial trade route links markets in Asia and Europe. The seriousness of the attacks led multiple shipping companies to order their vessels to hold in place and not enter the strait until the security situation improved. Some major shippers were sending their ships around Africa and the Cape of Good Hope, adding time and costs to the journeys.
Currently, there are five warships from the United States, France and the United Kingdom patrolling the waters of the southern Red Sea and the western Gulf of Aden, said Cooper, who heads the 5th Fleet. Since the operation started, the ships have shot down a total of 17 drones and four anti-ship ballistic missiles.
The shipping company Maersk had announced earlier that it had decided to re-route its ships that have been paused for days outside the strait and Red Sea, and send them around Africa instead. Maersk announced Dec. 25 that it was going to resume sending ships through the strait, citing the operation.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.