Yemeni Houthis claimed responsibility for attacks on two of the ships, which they described as being linked to Israel. It’s a major escalation of a series of maritime attacks in Middle Eastern waters amid Israel's war against Hamas in Gaza. Israel’s military claimed the vessels had no connection to the country.
The Bahamas-flagged Unity Explorer, which is owned by a British company, was among those targeted in a drone-and-missile assault on Sunday.
The USS Carney, a United States Navy destroyer, opened fire in self-defence and shot down three drones during the hours-long assault on Sunday, the US Central Command said in a statement.
It said the US destroyer detected a ballistic missile fired at the bulk carrier from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen.
The warship also shot down a drone, which was reportedly headed toward the Carney while it was responding to the distress call, although officials said it was not known whether the drone was targeting the warship.
About 30 minutes later, the Unity Explorer was hit by a missile that caused minor damage to the vessel.
Two other commercial ships, Panamanian-flagged bulk carriers Number 9 and Sophie II, were also struck by missiles in the attack, which began around 9.15am local time.
The Number 9 reported some damage but no casualties, and the Sophie II reported no significant damage, Central Command said.
Carney, an American Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, has already shot down numerous rockets fired by the Houthis towards Israel and vessels, in earlier incidents.
A spokesperson for Rishi Sunak, said: “Iran has long provided political and military support to Houthi militants and it bears responsibility for the actions of its proxies and partners. These waters are vital routes for global trade and incidents like these show the importance of the Royal Navy's presence in the region.”
Type 45 destroyer HMS Diamond was already heading to the region to bolster the Royal Navy's presence there.
The US has vowed to “consider all appropriate responses” in the wake of the attack, specifically calling out Iran.
“These attacks represent a direct threat to international commerce and maritime security,” the Central Command said. “They have jeopardised the lives of international crews representing multiple countries around the world.”
The Houthis claimed responsibility for two of Sunday's attacks, saying the first vessel was hit by a missile and the second by a drone while in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which links the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.
“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,” said Houthi military spokesperson Brigadier General Yahya Saree.
“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.”
The crew of British-owned Unity Explorer includes Dan David Ungar, who lives in Israel, as one of its officers. The Number 9 is linked to Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (BSM), while the Sophie II is linked to Japan's Kyowa Kisen Co Ltd.
The Houthis have launched a series of attacks on individual vessels in the Red Sea, with Sunday’s being the first to target multiple vessels at once. Last month the Houthis seized a Japanese-operated vehicle transport ship in the Red Sea off Yemen.
Missiles landed near another US warship last week after it assisted a vessel linked to Israel that had briefly been seized by gunmen.
Additional reporting by agencies
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