DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Three commercial ships came under attack Sunday four times by drones and missiles in the Red Sea, and a U.S. warship there responded to the distress calls as part of an hourslong assault claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, officials said.
The attack potentially marked a major escalation in a series of maritime attacks in the Mideast linked to the Israel-Hamas war as multiple vessels found themselves in the crosshairs of a single Houthi assault for the first time in the conflict.
The attacks began at approximately 9:15 a.m. when the USS Carney detected an anti-ship ballistic missile attack fired from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen toward the Bahamas-flagged bulk carrier Unity Explorer, U.S. Central Command said in a news release. Three hours later, at around noon, Carney shot down a drone that was headed for it, also launched from Yemen, though it was not clear if Carney was the target, CENTCOM said.
Soon after, Unity Explorer reported being struck by a missile also fired from Houthi-controlled Yemen, sustaining minor damage. While responding, the Carney shot down another drone aimed at Unity Explorer, with no damage or injuries to either ship or crew, CENTCOM said.
About three hours later, the Panamanian-flagged, Bermuda and U.K. owned and operated bulk container ship M/V Number 9 was struck by another missile while operating in international shipping lanes in the Red Sea. The carrier reported no damage or casualties, CENTCOM said.
At approximately 4:30 p.m., the Panamanian-flagged bulk carrier M/V Sophie II was struck by another missile. Carney responded to the distress call and reported no significant damage, but shot down another drone headed in its direction while enroute to render support, CENTCOM said.
“These attacks represent a direct threat to international commerce and maritime security,” CENTCOM said in the release. “They have jeopardized the lives of international crews representing multiple countries around the world. We also have every reason to believe that these attacks, while launched by the Houthis in Yemen, are fully enabled by Iran. The United States will consider all appropriate responses in full coordination with its international allies and partners.”
The Carney is an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer that’s already shot down multiple rockets the Houthis have fired toward Israel so far in the war. It wasn’t damaged in the attack and no injuries were reported on board, said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss early details of a military operation.
Assessments were still being made on the Unity Explorer, the Associated Press reported.
The British military earlier said there had been a suspected drone attack and explosions in the Red Sea, without elaborating.
Houthi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yahya Saree claimed the attacks on two vessels, saying the Unity Explorer was hit by a missile and the Number 9 by a drone while in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait that links the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.
Saree did not mention any U.S. warship being involved in the attack.
“The Yemeni armed forces continue to prevent Israeli ships from navigating the Red Sea (and Gulf of Aden) until the Israeli aggression against our steadfast brothers in the Gaza Strip stops,” Saree said. “The Yemeni armed forces renew their warning to all Israeli ships or those associated with Israelis that they will become a legitimate target if they violate what is stated in this statement.”
Saree also identified the first vessel as the Unity Explorer, which is owned by a British firm that includes Dan David Ungar, who lives in Israel, as one of its officers. The second was a Panamanian-flagged container ship called Number 9, which is linked to Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement. Managers for the two vessels could not be immediately reached for comment.
Israeli media identified Ungar as being the son of Israeli shipping billionaire Abraham “Rami” Ungar.
The Houthis have been launching a series of attacks on vessels in the Red Sea, as well as launching drones and missiles targeting Israel amid the war.
Global shipping had increasingly been targeted as the Israel-Hamas war threatens to become a wider regional conflict — even as a truce briefly halted fighting and Hamas exchanged hostages for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. However, the collapse of the truce and the resumption of punishing Israeli airstrikes and its ground offensive there had raised the risk of the seaborne attacks resuming.
Earlier in November, the Houthis seized a vehicle transport ship also linked to Israel in the Red Sea off Yemen. The rebels still hold the vessel near the port city of Hodeida. Missiles also landed near another U.S. warship last week after it assisted a vessel linked to Israel that had briefly been seized by gunmen.
However, the Houthis had not directly targeted the Americans for some time, further raising the stakes in the growing maritime conflict. In 2016, the U.S. launched Tomahawk cruise missiles that destroyed three coastal radar sites in Houthi-controlled territory to retaliate for missiles being fired at U.S. Navy ships at the time.
Elsewhere, Iraqi militants with the Iran-backed umbrella group the Islamic Resistance in Iraq said they struck the Kharab al-Jir U.S. military base in Syria with rockets. A U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said rockets hit Rumalyn Landing Zone in Syria but there were no reports of casualties or damage.
Later Sunday, officials with Iranian-backed militias in Iraq said five militia members were killed in an airstrike blamed on the U.S. near Kirkuk. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly. A U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a military operation not yet made public said the U.S. had carried out a “self-defense strike” near Kirkuk targeting a drone staging site.
Associated Press writers Tara Copp in Dallas, Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and Dana Beltaji contributed.