US and UK strike Houthi positions across Yemen

Iran-backed rebels vow to retaliate and continue attacks in the Red Sea

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The US and the UK on Thursday launched air strikes on Houthi military positions across Yemen, pledging to protect the freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, while simultaneously risking further escalation in the region as the Gaza war rages on.

The Iran-backed rebels, who control the capital Sanaa, northern Yemen and parts of the Red Sea coast, said five of its members were killed in the "barbaric" strikes and vowed to retaliate.

"Today, at my direction, US military forces – together with the United Kingdom and with support from Australia, Bahrain, Canada and the Netherlands – successfully conducted strikes against a number of targets in Yemen used by Houthi rebels to endanger freedom of navigation in one of the world’s most vital waterways," US President Joe Biden said in a statement.

It is the first military action against the group since it started attacking international shipping in the Red Sea in solidarity with its ally Hamas in the Gaza Strip late last year.

Houthi operations have disrupted international commerce on the key waterway between Europe and Asia, which accounts for about 15 per cent of the world's shipping traffic.

"These strikes are in direct response to unprecedented Houthi attacks against international maritime vessels in the Red Sea, including the use of anti-ship ballistic missiles for the first time in history," Mr Biden said.

They are believed to be the first strikes the US has carried out against the Houthis in Yemen since 2016.

"These targeted strikes are a clear message that the United States and our partners will not tolerate attacks on our personnel or allow hostile actors to imperil freedom of navigation in one of the world’s most critical commercial routes," Mr Biden added.

"I will not hesitate to direct further measures to protect our people and the free flow of international commerce as necessary."

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak approved the attacks after a meeting with his cabinet on Thursday evening.

"We have taken limited, necessary and proportionate action in self-defence … to degrade Houthi military capabilities and protect global shipping," Mr Sunak said in a statement.

The Houthis were defiant and vowed to continue their attacks.

“Our country was subjected to a massive aggressive attack by American and British ships, submarines and warplanes, and without a doubt, London and Washington will have to prepare to pay a heavy price,” Houthi official Hussein Al Ezzi said.

The group's leader Mohammed Ali Al Houthi said attacks in the Red Sea would continue.

“The American-British strikes are barbaric, terrorist and are a deliberate and unjustified aggression that reflects a brutal mindset," he said on X.

All US and British interests are now "legitimate targets", the Houthi-led Supreme Political Council said in a statement.

"The Yemeni response is legitimate within the framework of the sacred defence of Yemen, its sovereignty, independence and freedom of decision-making," it said.

The statement said the US and UK posed the real threat to international peace and security, and put the region under threat.

The US embassy of Yemen's internationally recognised government, which does not recognise the Houthis, accused the group of dragging the country into military conflict "with misleading claims that have no real connection to supporting our brothers and sisters in the occupied Palestinian territories."

"Yemen is following with great concern the military escalation in our country and the southern Red Sea, the most recent of which was the military operation that came as a response to the continued terrorist attacks by the Houthi militias that threatens the security and safety of international navigation," said the Yemen Embassy in DC in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Attacks on shipping in the Red Sea by Yemen's Houthi rebels with the aim of ending Israel's war in Gaza were slowly turning the group of mountain fighters into a prominent regional player, a recognition they have long sought to acquire.

The threat they pose to global supply chains has attracted global attention, marking their transition from a local rebel group to an influential militia in the Middle East.

There are also growing fears that the Houthis could use the strikes to influence any negotiations to end the war in Yemen after 10 years of fighting that has caused one of the biggest humanitarian crises in the world.

"Striking Houthi targets in Yemen is not the way to go. The US fell for the bait," said Kuwaiti assistant professor of history Bader Al Saif on X.

"That’s what the Houthis wanted all along: it further complicates hard negotiations to end war in Yemen and increases their popularity. Expanding the war does no good. Work on a Gaza ceasefire instead."

The extent of damage caused by the strikes to the Houthis' military capabilities remains unclear.

A Houthi military spokesman said five personnel were killed and six injured in 73 attacks in Sanaa and the provinces of Hodeidah, Taiz, Hajjah and Saada.

The UK Ministry of Defence said the strikes included a hit against a site in north-western Yemen used to launch reconnaissance and attack drones. "A number of buildings involved in drone operations were targeted by our aircraft,” a statement said.

How could Houthi attacks in the Red Sea affect global trade?

How could Houthi attacks in the Red Sea affect global trade?

The Houthi attacks in the Red Sea were part of a wider co-ordinated response by Iran-backed militias in the Middle East to the Israeli war in Gaza, where more than 23,000 people have been killed by Israel since the Hamas attacks on October 7. Iraqi militant groups have attacked US forces, while Hezbollah in Lebanon has engaged Israel in intense cross-border clashes.

The Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement the strikes on Houthi sites "will have no result other than fuelling insecurity and instability in the region".

Meanwhile, Russia has requested an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council in connection with the strikes, and Saudi Arabia called for "restraint and avoiding escalation".

Oman's Foreign Ministry has condemned US and British strikes on targets in Yemen.

"Oman denounces resorting to this military action while Israel is going ahead with its shelling, brutal war and siege of the Gaza Strip without punishment," the ministry said.

Foreign Minister Badr Al Busaidi said on X the sultanate was "deeply concerned" by the attacks.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned the strikes and accused the US and UK of wanting to turn the Red Sea into a "sea of blood".

Palestinian Assistant Foreign Minister Ammar Hijazi told The National the air strikes could cause further escalation "in the region and beyond".

"Unfortunately, states have chosen to escalate rather than hold Israel accountable and end this atrocity against the Palestinian people," he said on the steps of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, where Israel has been accused of genocide by a South African delegation.

In contrast, news of the strikes was welcomed in Israel, said Dr Yoel Guzansky, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies think tank in Tel Aviv.

“Many wanted the coalition to conduct them because the alternative, Israel unilaterally engaging the Houthis, would make the issue only an Israeli one. Now it's a global one,” he said.

Israel is less concerned than other countries about tensions escalating across the Middle East, because it already views the Gaza war as regional, Dr Guzansky said.

"In Israel, this is already a regional war, so for us, this does not open another front. The Houthis have already announced they’re firing against Israel,” he added.

The US in December launched Operation Prosperity Guardian to counter Houthi strikes on commercial vessels, alongside 10 countries including the UK.

"More than 50 nations have been affected in 27 attacks on international commercial shipping," Mr Biden said in his statement.

"Crews from more than 20 countries have been threatened or taken hostage in acts of piracy.

"More than 2,000 ships have been forced to divert thousands of miles to avoid the Red Sea, which can cause weeks of delays in product shipping times."

The US military said the Houthis on Thursday staged their 27th attack on shipping, firing an anti-ship ballistic missile into international shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden.

The air strikes come after UK and US naval forces destroyed “attack drones” sent by Houthi rebels in the Red Sea, in what was believed to be the largest assault yet from the Yemeni rebels.

Houthis vow to retaliate after US and UK strikes in Yemen

Houthis vow to retaliate after US and UK strikes in Yemen
Updated: January 19, 2024, 8:03 PM