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Three commercial vessels attacked in Red Sea by Houthi rebels, says US

<span>Photograph: Petty Officer 3rd Class Bill Dodge/AP</span>
Photograph: Petty Officer 3rd Class Bill Dodge/AP

Three commercial vessels came under attack in international waters in the southern Red Sea, the US military said on Sunday, as Yemen’s Houthi group claimed drone and missile attacks on two Israeli vessels in the area.

“Today there were four attacks against three separate commercial vessels operating in international waters in the southern Red Sea,” the statement from the US Central Command reads. “We have every reason to believe that these attacks, while launched by the Houthis in Yemen, are fully enabled by Iran.”

The Carney, a US destroyer, responded to distress calls and provided assistance following missile and drone launches from Houthi-controlled territory, according to US Central Command. It named the vessels attacked as Unity Explorer, Number 9 and Sophie II.

Yemen’s Houthi movement said its navy had attacked two ships, Unity Explorer and Number 9, with an armed drone and a naval missile and claimed the vessels were Israeli. A spokesperson for the group’s military said the two ships were targeted after they rejected warnings, without elaborating.

In a broadcast statement, the spokesperson said the attacks were in response to the demands of the Yemeni people and calls from Islamic nations to stand with the Palestinian people.

The US military said the Carney shot down two drones as it helped the commercial vessels. It was not clear if the warship was a target. It said the attacks were a threat to international commerce.

Israeli military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said the ships had “no connection to the state of Israel”. Hagari said: “One ship was significantly damaged and it is in distress and apparently is in danger of sinking and another ship was lightly damaged.”

US Central Command said Unity Explorer is Bahamas-flagged and UK-owned, that Number 9 is Panamanian flagged, Bermuda and UK owned and operated, and Sophie II is Panamanian flagged.

Yemen’s Houthis, who have the backing of Iran, have launched several missile and drone attacks on Israel since the start of the war in Gaza on 7 October. They are not thought to have inflicted any serious damage.

More recently, the rebel group has stepped up its targeting of commercial vessels sailing in the Red Sea, which lies south of the Suez Canal, a strategic naval route between Europe and Asia and east Africa.

Separately, a US airstrike killed five Iraqi militants near the northern city of Kirkuk as they prepared to launch explosive projectiles at US forces in the country, three Iraqi security sources said, identifying them as members of an Iran-backed militia.

A US military official confirmed a “self-defence strike on an imminent threat” that targeted a drone staging site near Kirkuk on Sunday afternoon.

A statement by the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an umbrella group representing several Iraqi armed factions with close ties to Tehran, said five of its members had been killed, and vowed retaliation against US forces.

The group had claimed several attacks against US forces throughout Sunday. Earlier Sunday, the US military official said US and international forces were attacked with multiple rockets at the Rumalyn landing zone in north-eastern Syria, but there were no casualties or damage to infrastructure.

Iraqi armed groups have claimed more than 70 such attacks against US forces since 17 October over Washington’s backing of Israel in its bombardment of Gaza.

A fortnight ago, the Houthis released dramatic video of masked gunmen seizing the Galaxy Leader, a British-owned and Japanese-operated cargo ship, after landing a helicopter on deck. They group claimed it was owned by Israel but there was no immediate evidence to support this.

A week later, towards the end of November, a US warship, the USS Mason, seized five attackers who had tried to take control of the Central Park, a commercial tanker that had been carrying a cargo of phosphoric acid.

In the incident, two ballistic missiles were fired from Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen toward the general location of the two ships, but landed 10 nautical miles away in the Gulf of Aden, the US military said.

On Sunday, maritime security specialists told Reuters that an unnamed bulk carrier ship had been hit by at least two drones in the Red Sea. One company, Ambrey, said another container ship had reportedly suffered damage from a drone attack about 63 miles north-west of the northern Yemeni port of Hodeidah.

Earlier, Britain’s Maritime Trade Operations agency said it had received reports of a drone attack in the Red Sea’s Bab el-Mandab strait, between Yemen, Djibouti and Eriteria. The body called on vessels in the vicinity to exercise caution.

In mid-October, the USS Carney shot down three ground-launched missiles as well as several drones that were fired by Houthi militants, the Pentagon said. At the time, the US said the missiles were “potentially heading towards Israel” as justification for its action.

Reuters contributed to this report

  • This article was amended on Monday 4 December to correct a headline error that stated the three commercial vessels were US-owned.