The U.S. Navy dispatched three warships near the southern coast of Yemen after four rockets hit and nearly sank a United Arab Emirates auxiliary ship Saturday, two U.S. defense officials told Fox News.
Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility for the attack. There were no reported injuries to the Emerati crew. Al Jazeera reported on video of the attack.
Iran supplied the Houthis with the “shoulder-fired rockets” that nearly destroyed the UAE ship, according to two U.S. officials. It was not immediately clear what type of rocket the rebels may have fired. The ship was formerly contracted to the U.S., two defense officials confirmed, and at one time an American company owned the vessel.
Military officials sent the Navy warships to the southern end of the Bab al-Mandab Strait, also known as the Mandab Strait, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. Two U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyers, USS Mason and USS Nitze, armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles, Harpoon anti-ship missiles and an assortment of deck-mounted high-caliber machine guns, joined USS Ponce, a floating staging ship which includes a compliment of special operations forces, according to one official.
Describing the U.S. response to the Houthis and their Iranian backers, one official said, “This is a show of force,” adding, “It’s concerning anytime this happens.”
The U.S. Navy keeps a high state of readiness in the Persian Gulf and nearby Gulf of Aden south of Yemen, according to the official. It was not immediately clear if any official guidance had been issued to raise that posture.
“Sending the warships to the area is a message that the primary goal of the Navy is to ensure that shipping continues unimpeded in the strait and the vicinity,” said a U.S. defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The attacked vessel is an Australian built high-speed logistics ship leased to the UAE, Reuters reported.
The UAE is part of a Saudi Arabia-led Arab coalition in Yemen fighting the Houthis in a civil war that began in 2015. The United States has provided support to the Saudi-led coalition in the past, including intelligence support and mid-air refueling tankers.
Crews are towing the UAE ship to a port in nearby Eritrea, according to two U.S. defense officials.
The United States strongly condemned the “unprovoked attack” by the Houthis in a statement Sunday. “We call on the Houthi-Saleh groups to immediately cease attacks against all vessels. These provocative actions risk exacerbating the current conflict and narrow the prospects for a peaceful settlement,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said.
In April, the U.S. Navy intercepted a weapons shipment from Iran to Yemen to aid the Houthis ahead of President Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia.
A year earlier, the U.S. Navy dispatched the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt to shadow an Iranian convoy which had weapons displayed brazenly on its decks. The Iranian convoy turned around and returned home before it reached Yemen, U.S. defense officials said at the time.
Lucas Tomlinson is the Pentagon and State Department producer for Fox News Channel. You can follow him on Twitter: @LucasFoxNews