US sinks Houthi boats in the Red Sea: How did the fight unfold?

Shipping company Maersk halts operations after maritime escalation between the Houthis and US forces.

The US military says it killed 10 Houthi fighters and sank three of the Yemeni armed group’s vessels after a clash in the Red Sea.

The escalation, mentioned in a US statement on Sunday, follows weeks of Houthi attacks on ships it identified as being linked to Israel that were passing through the Bab el-Mandeb strait into the Red Sea.

This was, the Houthi spokesman said, in a bid to pressure Israel to stop its devastating war and siege on the Gaza Strip that has killed more than 21,000 Palestinians.

US destroyers have teamed up with a few other nations to try and stop the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea under Operation Prosperity Guardian – though several partners have distanced themselves from the initiative.

The Red Sea clash on Monday was the first major direct military engagement between the US military and Houthi fighters. Here is what we know about how it all unfolded:

What happened on Sunday?

On Sunday at 6:30am Yemen time (03:30 GMT), the container ship Maersk Hangzhou issued a second distress call in a day, reporting being attacked by four “Houthi small boats”, the US Central Command (CENTCOM) posted on X.

In response to the distress call, CENTCOM said, the USS Gravely shot down two anti-ship missiles fired at the Maersk vessel then helicopters from the Gravely and the USS Eisenhower were dispatched towards the Maersk Hangzhou.

Why are the Houthis attacking ships in the Red Sea?

The Houthis began launching drones and missiles towards the southern parts of Israel in October soon after the war broke out on October 7.

However, the drones were intercepted or fell short and the Iran-backed group started attacking ships in the Red Sea they said were linked to Israel.

Their attacks have disrupted many ships for making their way to Israel.

On December 19, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced a multinational maritime protection force but the Houthis have said they will not back down unless Israel ceases its war on Gaza.

INTERACTIVE_Israel-Palestine_Red Sea Patrol Force _19DEC2023

Despite several countries agreeing to join the US’s marine force, only the United Kingdom has directly contributed warships, leaving Washington to effectively “act alone” against the Houthis, reports Al Jazeera’s Resul Serdar from Djibouti.

Serdar added that the US has “not been able to deter the Houthis” so far, with the group waging attacks even more frequently.

He added that the latest clash marked a serious escalation because the US killed Houthi fighters, not only sank Houthi boats. Such confrontations are sparking fears of a regional escalation.

Why did the US sink Houthi boats?

The US’s CENTCOM says that its helicopters warned the Houthi fighters to stay away when they began to attack the cargo ship with small arms fire and tried to board the vessel.

At that point, CENTCOM said, the helicopters came under fire and fired back, killing the 10 Houthi crew members of three boats which also sank.

The fourth boat escaped and US personnel and equipment did not bear harm, CENTCOM added.

“We’re going to act in self-defence going forward,” a White House official said.

A spokesman for the Houthis confirmed that 10 of their fighters were “dead and missing” after their boats were attacked.

How have Maersk and other shipping firms reacted?

Maersk announced on Sunday that it was pausing all sailing through the Red Sea for the next 48 hours.

Together with German shipping company Hapag-Lloyd, Maersk operates almost a quarter of the world’s shipping fleet.

Other shipping firms have also responded to the escalating maritime conflict. Shipping firm Evergreen has temporarily stopped accepting Israeli cargo.

Firms including CH Robinson, Evergreen, HMM, Ocean Network Express, Wallenius Wilhelmsen and Yang Ming Marine Transport are planning to avoid the Red Sea and increase the number of ships rerouting around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope rather than the Suez Canal. This new route is longer and costlier.

While these attacks have had a “fairly limited” impact on the oil market so far, experts postulate that prices could rise if the situation continues.

INTERACTIVE - Red Sea and Bab al-Mandeb trade

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies