Editor’s note: This story was updated at 7:45 p.m. EST with additional information.
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Commercial ships came under attack Sunday by drones and missiles in the Red Sea and the Navy destroyer Carney shot down multiple air drones during an hours-long assault claimed by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels, officials said.
The attacks potentially mark 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.
“We also have every reason to believe that these attacks, while launched by the Houthis in Yemen, are fully enabled by Iran,” U.S. Central Command said in a statement late Sunday afternoon U.S. time. “The United States will consider all appropriate responses in full coordination with its international allies and partners.”
All told, there were four attacks against three different commercial vessels operating in the southern Red Sea’s international waters.
In each case, Carney responded to ship distress calls and provided assistance, shooting down multiple air drones that were headed in its direction along the way.
It started at about 9:15 a.m. local time, when Carney detected an anti-ship ballistic missile fired from Houthi-controlled areas toward the Bahamian-flagged commercial vessel M/V Unity Explorer that landed “in the vicinity” of Unity Explorer, CENTCOM said.
Then, around noon, Carney engaged and shot down a drone launched from Yemen that was heading toward the warship, although CENTCOM said the drone’s specific target was unclear.
“There was no damage to the U.S. vessel or injuries to personal,” the command said.
At 12:35 p.m., Unity Explorer reported it had been struck by a missile, and Carney steamed toward the ship and began assisting with a damage assessment, which revealed “minor damage from the missile strike.”
At that point, Carney detected another inbound air drone, and destroyed that as well.
Roughly three hours later, at about 3:30 p.m. the Panamanian-Flagged M/V Number 9 ship was struck by another missile fired from Houthi areas in Yemen, CENTCOM said, but the strike to the bulk carrier resulted in no damage or casualties.
At 4:30 p.m., the Romanian-flagged M/V Sophie II sent a distress call that they had been struck by a missile, with Carney responding and finding only minor damages.
As it headed to Sophie II, Carney shot down an air drone headed toward the warship, its third intercept of the day.
Carney has shot down multiple air drones over the Red Sea in the past six weeks.
On Oct. 19, its crew intercepted a salvo of missiles and air drones that the Pentagon said were heading toward Israel.
The Red Sea is a vital artery in the global economy, and CENTCOM said the attacks “represent a direct threat to international commerce and maritime security.”
“They have jeopardized the lives of international crews representing multiple countries around the world,” the command said.
Houthi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yahya Saree claimed the attacks, saying the first vessel was hit by a missile and the second 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.”
Global shipping has increasingly been targeted as the Israel-Hamas war threatens to become a wider regional conflict — even as a truce has halted fighting and Hamas exchanges 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, including the USS Mason, at the time.
Associated Press writers Tara Copp in Dallas, Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and Dana Beltaji contributed.
Geoff is the editor of Navy Times, but he still loves writing stories. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.