Escalating Tensions in the Red Sea: US Navy Thwarts Houthi Attacks on Shipping

In a dramatic escalation of maritime tensions in the Red Sea, the US Navy thwarted an attempted boarding of the Maersk Hangzhou, a container ship, by Houthi forces from Yemen. The incident occurred as four vessels from Houthi-controlled areas approached the Maersk Hangzhou, firing upon it and getting dangerously close. Responding to a distress call, helicopters from nearby US warships engaged the Houthi boats in self-defence, sinking three of them and killing their crews. The fourth boat managed to escape the area.

Houthi Challenge in the Red Sea

The attack on the Maersk Hangzhou is part of a broader pattern of Houthi aggression in the Red Sea since November, with over 100 drone and missile attacks on various vessels passing through this crucial shipping lane. The Iranian-backed Houthi rebel group has claimed that its attacks target ships linked to Israel, as a response to the conflict in Gaza.

The Maersk Hangzhou, a commercial ship registered in Singapore and operated by a Danish firm, became a target for the Houthi forces. The US Central Command (Centcom) reported that the crew of the container ship issued a distress call when the Houthi boats, armed with mounted weapons and small arms, came within 20 meters of boarding the vessel. Helicopters from the USS Eisenhower aircraft carrier and USS Gravely destroyer responded to the distress call, facing hostile fire while attempting to communicate with the Houthi boats. In self-defence, the helicopters sank three of the attacking boats, resulting in the death of their crews. The fourth boat fled the scene, leaving no reported damage to US personnel or equipment.

This incident marked the second attack on the Maersk Hangzhou within 24 hours, as it had previously been targeted with missiles. The destroyers USS Gravely and USS Laboon responded to the missile attack, demonstrating the ongoing threat posed by Houthi-controlled areas. The missile attack, according to Centcom, was the first successful strike since the launch of a global patrol on December 18.

Centcom revealed that, while responding to the distress call, two anti-ship missiles were fired at the US navy vessels from Houthi-controlled areas. The USS Gravely successfully intercepted and destroyed the inbound ballistic missiles. This marked the twenty-third “illegal attack by the Houthis on international shipping” since November 19, highlighting the persistent threat faced by vessels navigating the Red Sea.

In response to the escalating attacks, Maersk, one of the world’s largest shipping companies, announced a temporary pause in sailings through the Red Sea for 48 hours. This decision followed the recent resumption of Red Sea routes after the launch of a mission by the US and its allies to protect ships in the region. The attacks on the Maersk Hangzhou have prompted shipping firms, including Maersk, to divert their vessels away from the Red Sea, opting for the longer route around the horn of Africa.

The strategic importance of the Red Sea as a key shipping lane, connecting markets in Europe with Asia, cannot be overstated. However, the rise in Houthi attacks has raised concerns about potential disruptions to global trade and an increase in shipping costs. The Red Sea is also critical for oil and liquefied natural gas shipments from the Middle East, and any disruptions could impact global energy prices.

The international community, recognizing the severity of the situation, has responded with coordinated efforts to safeguard shipping in the region. The US launched Operation Prosperity Guardian, an international coalition aimed at ensuring the security of vessels navigating the Red Sea. Despite these efforts, Houthi attacks persist, with US Navy Vice Admiral Brad Cooper describing them as “reckless.”

In a broader diplomatic context, the United Kingdom has called on Iran, which supports the Houthi rebels, to take responsibility for preventing these attacks. The UK Foreign Secretary conveyed this message to Iran’s foreign minister, emphasizing Tehran’s long-standing support for the Houthi group. The situation remains fluid, with the international community closely monitoring developments in the Red Sea and the broader implications for global maritime trade.

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