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The US Navy has destroyed several ‘small’ Houthi boats that attempted to board a container ship in the Red Sea, officials said.

The incident, confirmed by The United States Central Command (CENTCOM), comes as the US continues its patrol mission to counter threats from the Iranian-backed rebel group.

The crew of Singapore-flagged vessel with capacity to carry 14,000 containers was said to be safe, but the number of militants killed, as of 7:30am, remains unknown.

In a statement, military officials described how they deployed helicopters to sink three of the militant boats, while letting a fourth escape. 

The attack was the latest by the rebels in Yemen, who have been targeting vessels to show support for the Palestinian group Hamas amid its war with Israel.

US Navy sinks three Houthi militant boats in the Red Sea after they attacked a Maersk merchant ship with missiles – amid heightened operations to protect vital shipping lane

The US Navy has destroyed several ‘small’ Houthi boats that attempted to board a container ship in the Red Sea. Pictured: A 20mm Phalanx CIWS weapons defense cannon is mounted on the US Navy destroyer USS Gravely, one of the battleships that responded to the Sunday attack

The attack was the latest by militants in Yemen. An armed Yemeni sits on a boat in front of the Galaxy Leader cargo ship, seized by the Houthis offshore of the Al-Salif port on the Red Sea in Hodeidah, Yemen, on December 5

The attack was the latest by militants in Yemen. An armed Yemeni sits on a boat in front of the Galaxy Leader cargo ship, seized by the Houthis offshore of the Al-Salif port on the Red Sea in Hodeidah, Yemen, on December 5

The militants been targeting vessels crossing the crucial shipping lane in support of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas

The militants been targeting vessels crossing the crucial shipping lane in support of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas

Officials said in a statement issued around 4am ET: ‘On December 31 at 6:30am (Sanaa time) the container ship Maersk Hangzhou issued a second distress call in less than 24 hours reporting being under attack by four Iranian-backed Houthi small boats.

‘The small boats,’ the bulletin continued, ‘fired crew served and small arms weapons at the Maersk Hangzhou, getting to within 20 meters of the vessel.’

The Houthi-controlled boats then attempted ‘to board the vessel’, officials said, leading a contracted security team that had been aboard the vessel to return fire.

‘US helicopters from the USS Eisenhower and Gravely responded to the distress call,’ the statement went on to reveal.

‘[I]n 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. 

‘The fourth boat fled the area,’ officials added, days after the US and its allies launched Operation Prosperity Guardian to protect the crucial shipping strait. 

‘There was no damage to U.S. personnel or equipment,’ it continued, without revealing the casualties on the other side.

A Yemeni passes a banner depicting the Israeli and US flags on the deck of he Galaxy Leader cargo ship, seized by the Houthis offshore of the Al-Salif port on the Red Sea in the province of Hodeidah, Yemen, on December 5

A Yemeni passes a banner depicting the Israeli and US flags on the deck of he Galaxy Leader cargo ship, seized by the Houthis offshore of the Al-Salif port on the Red Sea in the province of Hodeidah, Yemen, on December 5

Yemenis recently militarily trained by the Houthi movement hold their guns and chant slogans as they take part in an armed popular parade held in Al-Sabeen Square to get ready to go and fight Israel in the Gaza Strip, on December 2

Yemenis recently militarily trained by the Houthi movement hold their guns and chant slogans as they take part in an armed popular parade held in Al-Sabeen Square to get ready to go and fight Israel in the Gaza Strip, on December 2

An armed Houthi fighter walks through the beach with the Galaxy Leader cargo ship in the background, seized by the Houthis offshore of the Al-Salif port, on December 5

An armed Houthi fighter walks through the beach with the Galaxy Leader cargo ship in the background, seized by the Houthis offshore of the Al-Salif port, on December 5

A Houthi military helicopter flies over the Galaxy Leader cargo ship in the Red Sea last month during the attack on the container vessel

A Houthi military helicopter flies over the Galaxy Leader cargo ship in the Red Sea last month during the attack on the container vessel

Houthi fighters open the door of the cockpit on the Galaxy Leader ship's deck in the Red Sea in November

Houthi fighters open the door of the cockpit on the Galaxy Leader ship’s deck in the Red Sea in November

As the early morning statement indicated, the failed strike was the second alleged Houthi attack on the Maersk Hangzhou in less than 24 hours.

It occurred in the early morning in the East just as the sun started to rise, but as most in the were heading to bed.

In the wake of the attacks, Maersk, the global shipping giant that owns the vessel, announced it was suspending its operations in the Red Sea for 48 hours to assess the threat to commercial vessels in the region.

The Houthi group, meanwhile, has yet to comment on the incidents, which are only the latest waged by the rebels in recent months.

This past Tuesday, rebels supported by Iran launched a barrage of drones and missiles north towards Israel, though the onslaught was blocked by a U.S. Navy destroyer and F/A-18 Super Hornets.

Protesters at Sana'a in Yemen take part in a demonstration on December 15 in solidarity with Palestinians in the Gaza, amid the conflict. The Houthis, who are aligned with Iran, have launched attacks on ships in the Red Sea and have used drones and missiles to target Israel

Protesters at Sana’a in Yemen take part in a demonstration on December 15 in solidarity with Palestinians in the Gaza, amid the conflict. The Houthis, who are aligned with Iran, have launched attacks on ships in the Red Sea and have used drones and missiles to target Israel

Houthi troopers stand guard during a demonstration at Sana'a in Yemen on December 15

Houthi troopers stand guard during a demonstration at Sana’a in Yemen on December 15

 The Houthis are Iranian-backed rebels who swept down from their northern stronghold in Yemen and seized the capital, Sanaa, in 2014, launching a war against a Saudi-led coalition seeking to restore the government.

The Houthis have sporadically targeted ships in the region, but the attacks have increased since the start of the Israel-Hamas war.

They have used drones and anti-ship missiles to attack vessels and in one case used a helicopter to seize an Israeli-owned ship and its crew.

They have threatened to attack any vessel they believe is either going to or coming from Israel.

That now appears to have escalated to any vessel given recent attacks, with the Houthis also hailing vessels by radio to try to convince them to change course closer to the territory they control.



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