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Houthi rebels escalate attacks by firing at US warship, set oil tanker alight

Houthi rebels escalate attacks by firing at US warship, set oil tanker alight

By Jon Gambrell and Tara Corp

Updated

Jerusalem: Yemen’s Houthi rebels launched a missile at a US warship patrolling the Gulf of Aden, forcing it to shoot down the projectile, and struck a British vessel as their aggressive attacks on maritime traffic continue.

The attack on the US warship, the destroyer USS Carney, marked a further escalation in the biggest confrontation at sea the US Navy has seen in the Middle East in decades, as Houthi missile fire set another commercial vessel ablaze Friday night (local time).

In Friday’s attack, an anti-ship ballistic missile came near the USS Carney, an Arleigh-Burke class destroyer.

In Friday’s attack, an anti-ship ballistic missile came near the USS Carney, an Arleigh-Burke class destroyer. Credit: AP

In return, early Saturday (local time), US forces conducted a strike against a Houthi anti-ship missile that was aimed into the Red Sea and prepared to launch, the US military’s Central Command said.

The Houthis’ Al-Masirah satellite news channel said the strikes happened near the port city of Hodeida, but offered no assessment of their damage.

The Carney attack represents the first time the Houthis directly targeted a US warship since the rebels began their assaults on shipping in October, a US official said on condition of anonymity because no authorisation had been given to discuss the incident.

Following that attack, the British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Operations, which oversees Mideast waterways, acknowledged a vessel had been struck by a missile and was on fire in the Gulf of Aden.

Houthi military spokesman Brigadier General Yahya Saree did not acknowledge the Carney attack but claimed the missile attack on the commercial vessel that set it ablaze. He identified the vessel as the Marshall Islands-flagged tanker Marlin Luanda.

A US military official confirmed the vessel was struck by a single anti-ship ballistic missile fired from Houthi-controlled Yemen. The Carney was sailing toward the stricken ship to provide assistance but had not reached it as of Friday evening (local time).

Houthi supporters attend a rally in support of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Houthi supporters attend a rally in support of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.Credit: AP

The Houthi’s directing attacks on US warships are the most aggressive escalation of its campaign in the Red Sea since the Israel-Hamas war broke out. The US has tried to temper its descriptions of the Houthi’s strikes, and said it is difficult to determine what exactly the Houthis are trying to hit in part to try to prevent the conflict from becoming a wider regional war.

The US and allies had also held off for weeks on striking Houthi weapons sites in Yemen, but they are now taking regular action, often destroying launch sites that are armed but have not fired, and are deemed an imminent threat.

Despite the Carney being directly targeted, a statement by the US military’s Central Command said the Houthis fired “toward” the Carney.

Acknowledging the assault as a direct attack on a US warship is important, said Brad Bowman, a senior director at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies.

“They’re now finally calling a spade a spade, and saying that, yeah, they’re trying to attack our forces, they’re trying to kill us,” he said.

Tempering the language and response, while aimed at preventing a wider war, has had the opposite effect of further emboldening the Houthis, Bowman said.

In the attack, an anti-ship ballistic missile came near the USS Carney, an Arleigh-Burke class destroyer that’s been involved in American operations trying to stop the Houthi campaign since November, Central Command said.

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“The missile was successfully shot down by USS Carney,” it said. “There were no injuries or damage reported.”

The attacks were the latest assaults by the rebels in their campaign against ships travelling through the Red Sea and surrounding waters, which has disrupted global trade amid Israel’s war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The US and Britain have launched multiple rounds of airstrikes since the Houthi attacks and began targeting Houthi missile depots and launcher sites in Yemen, a country that’s been wracked by conflict since the rebels seized the capital, Sanaa, in 2014.

Since November, the rebels have repeatedly targeted ships in the Red Sea, saying they were avenging Israel’s offensive in Gaza against Hamas. But they have frequently targeted vessels with tenuous or no clear links to Israel, imperilling shipping in a key route for global trade between Asia, the Mideast and Europe.

Since the airstrike campaign began, the rebels now say they’ll target American and British ships as well. On Wednesday, two American-flagged ships carrying cargo for the US Defence and State departments came under attack by the Houthis, forcing an escorting US Navy warship to shoot some of the projectiles down.

The US Navy’s top Mideast commander this week said that the Houthi attacks were the worst since the so-called Tanker War of the 1980s. It culminated in a one-day naval battle between Washington and Tehran, and also saw the US Navy accidentally shoot down an Iranian passenger jet, killing 290 people in 1988.

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