U.S. Navy helicopters returned fire and sank three small boats carrying Houthi militants in the Red Sea on Sunday, after U.S. warships responded to a distress call from a merchant vessel, military officials said.
A Maersk container ship, the Singapore-flagged Hangzhou, issued a distress call at about 6:30 a.m. local time, U.S. Central Command said in a statement on Sunday. The merchant vessel said four small boats were attacking it.
"The small boats, originating from Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen, fired crew-served and small-arms weapons at the Maersk Hangzhou, getting to within 20 meters of the vessel, and attempted to board the vessel," Central Command said.
Helicopters from two U.S. ships -- the USS Eisenhower and the USS Gravely -- responded and issued verbal calls to the small boats, U.S. officials said.
While the helicopters were "in the process of issuing verbal calls to the small boats, the small boats fired upon the U.S. helicopters with crew served weapons and small arms," Central Command said.
Service members aboard the Navy helicopters returned fire and sank three of the four small boats, killing the crews, U.S. officials said. The fourth boat fled the area.
In a statement Sunday, the Houthis said they lost 10 group members after U.S. forces fired on their vessels, referring to the engagement as "dangerous behavior" that will have "negative repercussions."
The group also said it will continue operating in the Red Sea. "The American enemy bears the consequences of this crime and its repercussions," the group said, in part.
The group also reiterated that it will "not hesitate to confront any aggression" against Yemen and renewed its "advice to all countries not to be drawn into the American plans aimed at igniting the conflict in the Red Sea."
The U.S. does not seek to escalate the conflict, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said on "Good Morning America" on Sunday.
"We don't seek a conflict wider in the region and we're not looking for a conflict with the Houthis," Kirby told ABC News' Whit Johnson. "The best outcome here would be for the Houthis to stop these attacks as we have made clear over and over again."
Sunday's incident was the second time in 24 hours that the Hangzhou had issued a distress call, U.S. Navy officials said.
The ship had been traveling on Saturday evening about 55 nautical miles southwest of Al Hudaydah, Yemen, when it was hit by an unknown object, a Maersk spokesperson told ABC News.
The 14,000-container vessel continued north afterward, heading toward its destination of Port Suez, Egypt.
"Maersk can also confirm that after the initial attack on the vessel, four boats approached the vessel and engaged fire in an expected attempt to board the vessel," said Adhish Alawani, a Maersk spokesperson.
Maersk has delayed all transits through the area for the next 48 hours, as the incident is investigated, he said.
Kirby emphasized the importance of the Red Sea shipping corridor and the critical need to keep it safe and open for international commerce.
Asked if a pre-emptive strike is on the table, Kirby said "we're not ruling anything in or out."
"We have made it clear publicly to the Houthis and privately to our allies and partners, and we're going to make the right decisions going forward," he added.