Iran-backed Houthis struck two commercial vessels in Bab al-Mandab Strait on Friday, as the United States planned to establish a naval coalition to protect shipping.
Danish Shipping company Maersk announced it would pause all container shipments through the Red Sea until further notice. German container line Hapag Lloyd said it was considering a similar move.
Houthis have been attacking international shipping since mid-November, as retaliation for the Israeli military operation in Gaza after Iran called for disrupting shipping to Israel. Houthis recently extended their threat to all shipping instead of targeting vessels destined for Israeli ports.
A projectile, believed to be a drone, struck one of two Liberian-flagged vessels, the German-owned Al Jasrah, causing a fire but no injuries, a US official was quoted as saying.
Two ballistic missiles were fired in the second attack, one of which struck a vessel, causing a fire which the crew was working to extinguish, the official said.
A US Navy destroyer was on its way to aid the vessel, the official said, without naming the vessel.
Meanwhile, the United States was reportedly in talks with 12 countries to form a naval coalition to protect international shipping in the Red Sea. It was expected that Washington would make an announcement on Friday. Iran’s defense minister Mohammad-Reza Ashtiani slammed the US effort saying that the Red Sea is “our region” and warned that “nobody can make a move in a region where we have predominance.”
The Houthis said in a statement that they had fired missiles at two ships – the MSC Alanya and MSC Palatium III. Their statement made no mention of Al Jasrah.
An MSC spokesperson said there had been no attack on the Alanya. Asked about the Houthi claim of an attack on the Palatium III, the spokesperson provided no further comment.
The Houthis said both vessels had been heading to Israel.
However, Alanya and Palatium III both listed Jeddah in Saudi Arabia as their destination, according to data from ship tracking and maritime analytics provider MarineTraffic.
“We will continue to prevent all ships heading to Israeli ports until the food and medicine our people need in the Gaza Strip is brought in,” the Houthi statement said.
“We assure all ships heading to all ports of the world apart from Israeli ports that they will suffer no harm and they must keep their identification device on,” it said.
Iranian proxy groups in Iraq and Syria have also been targeting US military bases in the two countries since mid-October in retaliation to Washington’s support for Israel after the Hamas terror attack that killed more than 1,000 civilians.
Iran has avoided direct military involvement in support its ally Hamas, despite threatening Israel with destruction for decades. It has also repeatedly said it had no role in the October 7 Hamas operation. However, its proxies, including the Houthis, have launched attacks against US and Israeli targets and international shipping.
Critics of the Biden administration have argued that US deterrence against Iran has failed, and Washington should retaliate against Iranian interests to stop its proxies.
US National Security spokesman John Kirby took Iran to task last week for destabilizing the region by providing financial and military assistance to extremist militant groups, such as Yemeni Houthis.
“We know that the Houthis are supported by Iran, not just politically and philosophically but, of course, with weapon systems,” he stressed.