By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali
WASHINGTON (Reuters)–A U.S. Navy destroyer was targeted on Wednesday in a failed missile attack from territory in Yemen controlled by Iran-aligned Houthi rebels, the second such incident in the past four days, U.S. officials told Reuters.
The USS Mason, which was accompanied by the USS Ponce–an amphibious transport dock–fired defensive salvos in response to the missiles, neither of which hit the ship or caused any damage as it operated north of the Bab al-Mandab Strait, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The renewed attempt to target the U.S. Navy destroyer will add pressure on the U.S. military to retaliate, a move that would represent the first direct U.S. military action against Houthis in Yemen’s conflict. The Pentagon hinted about possible retaliatory strikes on Tuesday.
The incidents, along with an Oct. 1 strike on a vessel from the United Arab Emirates, add to questions about safety of passage for military ships around the Bab al-Mandab Strait, one of the world’s busiest shipping routes.
The Houthis, who are battling the internationally-recognized government of Yemen President Abd Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi, denied any involvement in the previous attempt to strike the USS Mason or the nearby USS Ponce on Sunday.
But U.S. officials have told Reuters there is growing indications that Houthi rebels, despite those denials, were responsible for Sunday’s incident.
The rebels appeared to use small skiffs as spotters to help direct the missile attack on the warship. The United States is also investigating the possibility that a radar station under Houthi control in Yemen might have also "painted" the USS Mason, something that would have helped the Houthi fighters pass along coordinates for a strike, the officials have said.
The Houthis, who are allied to Hadi’s predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, have the support of many army units and control most of the north including the capital Sanaa.
Reuters has learned that the coastal defense cruise missiles used against the USS Mason on Sunday had considerable range, adding to concerns about the kind of heavy weaponry that the Houthis appear willing to employ and some of which U.S. officials believe is supplied by Iran.