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Yemen Houthi rebels fire a missile at a US warship, escalating worst Mideast sea conflict in decades

JERUSALEM (AP) — Yemen's Houthi rebels launched a missile Friday at a United States warship patrolling the Gulf of Aden, forcing it to shoot down the projectile, and struck a British vessel as their aggressive attacks on maritime traffic continue.

The attack on the U.S. warship, the destroyer USS Carney, marked a further escalation in the biggest confrontation at sea the U.S. Navy has seen in the Middle East in decades, as Houthi missile fire set another commercial vessel ablaze Friday night.

Early Saturday local time, U.S. forces conducted a strike against a Houthi anti-ship missile that was aimed into the Red Sea and prepared to launch, the U.S. military's Central Command said.

The Houthis’ Al-Masirah satellite news channel said the strikes happened near the port city of Hodeida, but offered no assessment of their damage.

The Carney attack represents the first time the Houthis directly targeted a U.S. warship since the rebels began their assaults on shipping in October, a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity because no authorization had been given to discuss the incident.

Later Friday, the British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Operations, which oversees Mideast waterways, acknowledged a vessel had been struck by a missile and was on fire in the Gulf of Aden.

Houthi military spokesperson Brig. Gen. Yahya Saree did not acknowledge the Carney attack, but claimed the missile attack on the commercial vessel that set it ablaze. He identified the vessel as the Marshall Islands-flagged tanker Marlin Luanda.

Central Command late Friday confirmed the Marlin Luanda was struck by a single anti-ship ballistic missile fired from Houthi-controlled Yemen. The Carney and other coalition ships responded and were rendering assistance toward the stricken ship. Central Command said no injuries were reported.

The Houthis' now direct attacks on U.S. warships are the most aggressive escalation of its campaign in the Red Sea since the Israel-Hamas war broke out. The U.S. has tried to temper its descriptions of the Houthis' strikes, and said it is difficult to determine what exactly the Houthis are trying to hit in part try to prevent the conflict from becoming a wider regional war.

The U.S. and allies had also held off for weeks on striking Houthi weapons sites in Yemen, but they are now taking regular action, often destroying launch sites that are armed but have not fired, and are deemed an imminent threat.

Despite the Carney being directly targeted, Central Command said the Houthis fired “toward” the Carney. The Carney shot down the anti-ship ballistic missile, it said.

Acknowledging Friday’s assault as a direct attack on a U.S. warship is important, said Brad Bowman, a senior director at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

“They’re now finally calling a spade a spade, and saying that, yeah, they’re trying to attack our forces, they’re trying to kill us,” he said.

Tempering the language and response, while aimed at preventing a wider war, has had the opposite effect of further emboldening the Houthis, Bowman said.

The attacks were the latest assaults by the rebels in their campaign against ships traveling through the Red Sea and surrounding waters, which has disrupted global trade amid Israel’s war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The U.S. and Britain have launched multiple rounds of airstrikes since the Houthi attacks began targeting Houthi missile depots and launcher sites in Yemen, a country that's been wracked by conflict since the rebels seized the capital, Sanaa, in 2014.

Since November, the rebels have repeatedly targeted ships in the Red Sea, saying they were avenging Israel’s offensive in Gaza against Hamas. But they have frequently targeted vessels with tenuous or no clear links to Israel, imperiling shipping in a key route for global trade between Asia, the Mideast and Europe.

Since the airstrike campaign began, the rebels now say they’ll target American and British ships as well. On Wednesday, two American-flagged ships carrying cargo for the U.S. Defense and State departments came under attack by the Houthis, forcing an escorting U.S. Navy warship to shoot some of the projectiles down.

The U.S. Navy’s top Mideast commander told the AP on Monday that the Houthi attacks were the worst since the so-called Tanker War of the 1980s. It culminated in a one-day naval battle between Washington and Tehran, and also saw the U.S. Navy accidentally shoot down an Iranian passenger jet, killing 290 people in 1988.

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Copp reported from Washington.