Three commercial vessels were attacked in the Red Sea on Sunday, prompting a U.S. warship to shoot down multiple unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) headed toward them.

The development could signify a serious escalation in a series of maritime attacks in the Middle East linked to the Israel-Hamas war.

‘Today, there were four attacks against three separate commercial vessels operating in international waters in the southern Red Sea,’ a statement by U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) explained. ‘These three vessels are connected to 14 separate nations.’

USS Carney was in the southern Red Sea, just north of the Bab al-Mandab Strait, when it shot down three Houthi drones heading in its direction, a U.S. official told Fox News, adding that the action was taken in self-defense. The drones were launched from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen, the official claimed. 

USS Carney first detected that Houthi ballistic missiles were headed toward Unity Explorer, a vessel owned and operated by the United Kingdom. USS Carney shot down the first Houthi UAV headed toward United Explorer and did not incur any damage or injuries to personnel.

USS Carney is an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer that shot down drones and cruise missiles in recent weeks launched by Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who claimed credit for Sunday’s attack.

After the first incident on Sunday, Unity Explorer was hit later that afternoon by another UAV and sustained minor damage. USS Carney destroyed another UAV that was headed toward the ship.

Two other vessels, named Number 9 and Sophie II, were struck by missiles that afternoon. USS Carney was able to shoot down a UAV headed toward Sophie II.

‘These attacks represent a direct threat to international commerce and maritime security. They have jeopardized the lives of international crews representing multiple countries around the world,’ CENTCOM said. ‘We also have every reason to believe that these attacks, while launched by the Houthis in Yemen, are fully enabled by Iran.’

‘The United States will consider all appropriate responses in full coordination with its international allies and partners,’ the press release concluded.

Earlier on Sunday, a White House official clarified to Fox News that USS Carney specifically did not come under attack in the Red Sea, but that they did respond to their distress calls. 

There are no injuries to any of the crew members on the commercial vessels, which represent multiple nations, meaning the crews are from one country, while the ships are owned by another country and flagged by another, according to the official.

The British military earlier said there had been a suspected drone attack and explosions in the Red Sea, without elaborating.

Houthi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yahya Saree claimed the attacks, saying the first vessel was hit by a missile and the second by a drone while in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait that links the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. He described the ships as allegedly ignoring warnings from Houthi officials prior to the attack.

Saree did not mention any U.S. warship being involved in the attack, according to the AP. 

‘The Yemeni armed forces continue to prevent Israeli ships from navigating the Red Sea (and Gulf of Aden) until the Israeli aggression against our steadfast brothers in the Gaza Strip stops,’ Saree said. ‘The Yemeni armed forces renew their warning to all Israeli ships or those associated with Israelis that they will become a legitimate target if they violate what is stated in this statement.’

Before reports of an attack on a U.S. warship in the Red Sea, former CIA director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Saturday evening at the Reagan National Defense Forum spoke about how the U.S. should respond to the increasing number of attacks by Iran’s proxy groups against U.S. forces in the Middle East. 

‘I would be much more aggressive,’ Panetta said. ‘I want to go after those who are firing missiles at our troops and make sure they understand that when they fire a missile – they are going to die.’

U.S. forces in the Middle East have been attacked at least 75 times since the middle of last month. The Pentagon does not count attacks on U.S. warships at sea in this number.

Global shipping has increasingly been targeted as the Israel-Hamas war threatens to become a wider regional conflict.

Earlier in November, the Houthis seized a vehicle transport ship also linked to Israel in the Red Sea off Yemen. The rebels still hold the vessel near the port city of Hodeida. Missiles also landed near another U.S. warship last week after it assisted a vessel linked to Israel that had briefly been seized by gunmen.

However, the Houthis had not directly targeted the Americans for some time, further raising the stakes in the growing maritime conflict. In 2016, the U.S. launched Tomahawk cruise missiles that destroyed three coastal radar sites in Houthi-controlled territory to retaliate for missiles being fired at U.S. Navy ships, including USS Mason, at the time.

Fox News’ Sarah Tobianski and The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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