The helicopters sank the boats and killed those aboard, marking the first time since tensions broke out earlier this year that the US has killed members of the Iranian-backed Huthi rebel group, which has been targeting commercial and merchant vessels in the Red Sea.
The US has avoided directly striking the group inside Yemen as it seeks to avoid escalating the crisis further. But a National Security Council spokesman said Sunday that the US would continue acting in self-defense.
“We don’t seek a conflict wider in the region and we’re not looking for a conflict with the Huthi s. The best outcome here would be for the Huthi s to stop these attacks, as we have made clear over and over again,” John Kirby said on ABC News.
Four small boats originating from “Huthi -controlled areas of Yemen” attacked the Maersk Hangzhou on Saturday with small arms and attempted to board the merchant vessel, according to a statement from US Central Command, which added that a security team on board had returned fire.
CENTCOM said helicopters from the USS Eisenhower and Gravely responded to the Maersk Hangzhou’s distress call, the second in less than 24 hours, and were fired on by the Huthi boats.
“The U.S. Navy helicopters returned fire in self-defense, sinking three of the four small boats, and killing the crews. The fourth boat fled the area,” the statement said, adding that there was “no damage to U.S. personnel or equipment.”
CNN has reached out to Maersk for comment on the incident.
The Huthi s have launched dozens of attacks on commercial vessels since October 7, saying they are acting in solidarity with Hamas amid the group’s war with Israel.
The US has deployed warships to the Red Sea and last month launched Operation Prosperity Guardian, a multinational maritime coalition, to beef up security in the critical global shipping lane.
While President Joe Biden has authorized strikes on other Iranian proxy groups that have attacked American troops in Iraq and Syria, he has stopped short of striking the Huthi s in Yemen.
“We’ve got significant national security interests in the region just on our own … and we’re going to put the kind of forces we need in the region to protect those interests and we’re going to act in self-defense going forward,” Kirby said.
Asked about the prospect of a preemptive strike in the region, Kirby reiterated the White House stance.
“We’re not ruling anything in or out, but we have made it clear publicly to the Huthi s and privately to our allies and partners in the region we take these threats seriously, and we’re going to make the right decisions going forward,” he said.
CNN’s Lucas Lilieholm contributed to this report.