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Filipino seafarers killed in first fatal Houthi attack on commercial shipping

Two Filipino seafarers are among the dead after a Houthi ballistic missile struck a commercial ship in the Gulf of Aden, marking the first fatal attack by the Iran-backed militant group in its ongoing assaults in the Red Sea.

At least three crew members were killed and four others injured in the attack Wednesday on the M/V True Confidence, a Barbados-flagged, Liberian-owned bulk carrier, US Central Command said in a statement. The ship has since been abandoned and coalition warships are now in the area assessing the situation, two US officials told CNN.

In a statement Thursday, the Philippine Department of Migrant Workers (DMW) announced the death of its nationals and said two other Filipino crewmen were severely injured in the attack.

The deadly strike marks a significant escalation of the Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping, which began in October in response to the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza.

The Houthis said in a statement that the strike was “accurate” and caused a fire to break out on the ship.

“The targeting operation came after the ship’s crew rejected warning messages from the Yemeni naval forces,” a Houthi statement said.

The Houthis, having taken control of most of northern Yemen – including the capital Sanaa – present themselves as the legitimate rulers of the country.

The Houthi statement reiterated the group’s support for the Palestinian people and said they will not stop their attacks in the Red Sea until Israeli “aggression stops and the siege on the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip is lifted.”

US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said Wednesday that the deaths were “sadly inevitable.”

“The Houthis have continued to launch these reckless attacks with no regard for the well-being of innocent civilians who are transiting through the Red Sea, and now they have unfortunately and tragically killed innocent civilians,” Miller said at a briefing.

“The United States will continue to hold the Houthis accountable for their attacks, which have not just disrupted international commerce, not just disrupted the freedom of navigation and international waters, and not just endangered seafarers, but now tragically killed a number of them,” he said.

The United Nations’ shipping agency chief expressed condolences over the deaths and made renewed calls to protect crew members following the tragedy.

“Innocent seafarers should never become collateral victims,” International Maritime Organization Secretary-General Arsenio Dominguez said in a statement.

Red Sea attacks

The Houthis have launched more than 45 missile and drone attacks against commercial and US and coalition naval vessels operating in the Red Sea, according to US and Western officials, most of which have been intercepted by US or coalition destroyers or landed harmlessly in the water.

To date, no military vessels have been impacted by Houthi UAVs or missiles, according to US Defense Department spokesperson Maj. Pete Nguyen. But more than a dozen commercial ships, including several US vessels, have been hit since October, Nguyen said.

The US and the United Kingdom have also carried out four rounds of strikes against Houthi targets inside Yemen since January, hitting weapons and missile storage facilities, one-way attack unmanned aerial and air defense systems, radars, and helicopters.

US Central Command forces have also regularly conducted dynamic strikes against Houthi missiles seen preparing to launch from Yemen.

The Biden administration has been struggling to stop the attacks, however, and the rebel group has continued to fortify its weapons stockpile in Yemen, CNN previously reported.

Multiple officials told CNN the US still does not have “a denominator” that would allow them to assess the percentage of Houthi equipment the US and the UK have actually destroyed in airstrikes, and it is not clear whether the US will shift its military approach further.

“We know that the Houthis maintain a large arsenal,” Deputy Pentagon press secretary Sabrina Singh said last week, hours after the Houthis hit yet another cargo vessel in the Gulf of Aden with ballistic missiles. “They are very capable, they have sophisticated weapons, and that’s because they continue to get them from Iran.”

“They continue to surprise us,” said one senior defense official, referring to the Houthis. “We just don’t have a good idea of what they still have.”

And despite a robust US and coalition presence in the Red Sea, which includes the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier and several US destroyers, the Houthi attacks have caused a massive drop in ships traveling through the Suez Canal.

The passage links the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Sea, allowing ships to cut thousands of miles off shipping routes instead of sailing around Africa. In the first half of February, the Suez Canal experienced a 42% drop in monthly transits and an 82% decrease in container tonnage from its peak in 2023, according to the UN.

This story has been updated with additional developments.

CNN’s Jennifer Hansler, Mostafa Salem, Sharon Braithwaite, Kathleen Magramo and Manveena Suri contributed reporting.

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