Al Houthi military helicopter flies over the Galaxy Leader cargo ship after it seized the vessel in the Red Sea in November. Image Credit: Reuters file

Dubai: US Navy helicopters sank three of four small boats used by Iranian-backed Al Houthi militants to attack a merchant vessel in the southern Red Sea on Sunday, US central command (CENTCOM) said on social media platform X.

Helicopters from the USS Eisenhower and USS Gravely, responding to distress calls from the Maersk Hangzhou, returned fire on Al Houthi boats in self-defence and sank three of the vessels with no survivors. The fourth boat fled the area. Yemeni sources told AFP that 10 Al Houthi militants were killed in the attack.

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CENTCOM said that assault was the 23rd illegal attack by Al Houthis on international shipping since November 19.

The vessel appeared to be undamaged and "was able to continue its transit north", Maersk, one of the world's largest shipping companies, said in a statement.

The cargo ship was then fired on by four Huthi rebel vessels that attempted to board the vessel, according to the shipping company.

"In light of the incident - and to allow time to investigate the details of the incident and assess the security situation further - it has been decided to delay all transits through the area for the next 48 hours," it added.

Maersk also confirmed the report of an incident involving Maersk Hangzhou after the vessel had passed through the Bab Al Mandab Strait en route from Singapore to port Suez, Egypt.

It said it will pause all sailings through the Red Sea for 48 hours.

The crew was safe and there was no indication of fire onboard the vessel that was fully manoeuvrable and continued its journey north to Port Suez, Maersk said.

The vessel had earlier been targeted with two anti-ship ballistic missiles that the US military shot down.

One of the missiles, both launched from Al Houthi-controlled Yemen, hit the Maersk Hangzhou.

The Houthis have repeatedly targeted vessels in the vital Red Sea shipping lane with strikes they say are in support of Palestinians in Gaza, where Israel is battling militant group Hamas.

The attacks are endangering a transit route that carries up to 12 per cent of global trade, prompting the United States to set up a multinational naval task force this month to protect Red Sea shipping.