The US arm of AP Moller-Maersk is suspending voyages through the Red Sea after two of its container ships came under missile attack while being escorted by the US Navy.

The 6,200-teu Maersk Detroit and 2,474-teu Maersk Chesapeake (both built 2008) turned around in the Red Sea and were escorted back to the Gulf of Aden, said the company.

The master of an unidentified ship reported an explosion 100 metres from its starboard side, the UK Maritime Trade Operations said earlier.

US Central Command, which coordinates the country’s military operations in the region, said three anti-ship ballistic missiles were fired toward the Maersk Detroit.

One missile hit the sea, while the warship USS Gravely shot down two others.

The two ships were carrying cargo and aid for the US government and were given protection by the navy for the passage through the Bab El-Mandeb strait, said subsidiary Maersk Line Ltd, for which the US military is a major customer on its US-flag ships.

“While en route, both ships reported seeing explosions close by and the US Navy accompaniment also intercepted multiple projectiles,” the company said.

“The crew, ship and cargo are safe and unharmed. The US Navy has turned both ships around and is escorting them back to the Gulf of Aden.”

Maersk Line Ltd said it was suspending transits in the region until further notice because of the escalation of risk.

The attack happened 50 nautical miles (93 km) south of Al Mukha, Yemen, UK Maritime Trade Operations said. Security firm Ambrey Analytics added that the vessel was targeted by a drone.

Houthi military spokesman Yahya Saree described the attack differently. He claimed in a statement that missiles scored a direct hit on an American vessel, presumably a warship, in addition to forcing the two commercial vessels to withdraw.

The incident comes a day after the US Maritime Administration (MARAD) reiterated advice that US ships should avoid key parts of the region as Houthis target commercial vessels tied to the country.

“While the decision to transit remains at the discretion of individual vessels and companies, it is recommended that US-flag and US-owned commercial vessels remain North of 18N in the Red Sea or East of 46E in the Gulf of Aden until further notice,” the agency said.

The Maersk Detroit and Maersk Chesapeake are both enrolled in the MARAD-administered Maritime Security Program, a US subsidy program that provides stipends to militarily useful US-flag vessels.

Earlier in the week, Yemen’s rebel Houthi militia claimed to have hit the 10,700-dwt US-flag heavylift ship Ocean Jazz (built 2010), although the US Navy denied that a “successful attack” took place.

Last week Houthi militants attacked an Eagle Bulk Shipping vessel in the Gulf of Aden and Genco Shipping & Trading’s 55,300-dwt bulker Genco Picardy (built 2005) was targeted in the area and then reported seeing more drones in a second incident.

Genco’s 55,300-dwt bulker Genco Picardy (built 2005) is seen after it was attacked by a Houthi drone in the Gulf of Aden on 17 January. Photo: Indian Navy via X

US and British forces have launched dozens of airstrikes across Yemen in retaliation for the attacks on commercial shipping that have forced vessels to divert from the region.

The Pentagon said the two countries targeted a Houthi underground storage site on Tuesday, as well as missile and surveillance sites.

China’s ambassador to the European Union, Fu Cong, told Bloomberg that the airstrikes by the US and the UK on Houthi targets “can only escalate the tension” and would “not guarantee or maintain the safe passage of the commercial vessels”.

Eric Priante Martin and Yannick Guerry contributed to this story.