Helicopters from the US Navy (USN) have sunk three small vessels in the Red Sea near the Houthi-controlled area of Yemen.
The incident took place on 31 December at around 06:30h local time, according to the Pentagon’s Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees military operations in the Middle East.
“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,” CENTCOM said on social media on 31 December.
Four small vessels approached within 20m of the container ship, the Pentagon says, firing crew-served machine guns and small arms at the Maersk Hangzhou. USN helicopters from the USS Dwight Eisenhower aircraft carrier and guided missile destroyer USS Gravely responded to the distress call.
“The small boats fired upon the US helicopters with crew served weapons and small arms,” CENTCOM says. “The US Navy helicopters returned fire in self-defence, sinking three of the four small boats, and killing the crews.”
The Pentagon has not revealed what type of aircraft were involved in the incident.
However, USN ships commonly carry Sikorsky MH-60S and MH-60R Seahawk multi-mission helicopters. Both support search and rescue, logistics and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. In addition, the MH-60R has a key anti-submarine warfare role.
Both variants can be outfitted with side-mounted .50 calibre machine guns.
Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, operating from Yemen, have carried out more than 20 drone and missile attacks against commercial shipping vessels and USN ships in the Red Sea in recent months, according to the Pentagon.
In November, Houthi fighters hijacked a container ship in the Red Sea, landing troops on the vessel via helicopter air assault.
Washington has announced an international military operation, dubbed Prosperity Guardian, to secure the Red Sea and approaches to the Suez Canal.
Meanwhile, four major commercial shipping lines have ordered their vessels to avoid the region entirely, opting for the longer and more-costly route around the southern tip of Africa.