Houthi rebels continue Red Sea attacks despite new US-led coalition

The US shot down four drones launched from Yemen towards a US destroyer

A man holds a gun during a protest in Yemen against the operation to safeguard trade and protect ships in the Red Sea. EPA
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Yemen’s Houthi rebels continued to attack ships in the Red Sea in retaliation for Israel’s war on Gaza, with at least two vessels and a US destroyer targeted with drones over the weekend.

The US military said the USS Laboon shot down four drones launched from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen towards its position in the southern Red Sea on Saturday and responded to distress calls from two commercial vessels.

A Gabon-owned, Indian-flagged crude oil tanker was reportedly hit, while a Norwegian-flagged tanker was targeted but not struck, Centcom said.

“These attacks represent the 14th and 15th attacks on commercial shipping by Houthi militants since October 17,” it said.

Later on Sunday, the Houthis said that a missile fired by a US warship had exploded near a Gabon-owned ship that was travelling from Russia.

"The Red Sea will be a burning arena if the U.S. and its allies continue their bullying. Countries bordering the Red Sea must realise the reality of the dangers that threaten their national security," said the group's representative Mohammed Abdul-Salam.

The Iran-backed rebels have vowed to continue their attacks in support of Gaza despite the formation of a US-led coalition to protect ships passing through the Red Sea, a route that accounts for about 12 per cent of global maritime trade.

On Saturday, a ship bound for India was hit by a drone that the Pentagon said was launched from Iran.

There was no immediate comment from Iran on the allegation.

An official of Iran's Revolutionary Guard commander said on Saturday that other waterways including the Mediterranean could be forced to close if the US and its allies kept committing “crimes” in Gaza, Iranian media reported.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian denied that his country was helping the Houthis to attack ships in the Red Sea but warned that the waterway would not be safe as long as Israel continued its offensive.

On Friday, Washington said that Iran was “deeply involved” in the planning of the Houthi attacks and had supplied weapons, financial support and training.

“The accusation is baseless,” Mr Amirabdollahian said.

The attacks are “a completely Yemeni decision in support and defence of Gaza,” he said.

The Houthi attacks, which the group claims are against ships that it believes to be bound for or have links to Israel, have resulted in many major container and oil shippers rerouting vessels. The strikes have also led to an increase in oil prices.

Last week, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin announced the formation of a new international maritime task force called Operation Prosperity Guardian to counter the attacks, particularly in the narrow channel between Yemen and the Bab Al Mandeb.

Mr Amirabdollahian said the US-led coalition “isn’t a solution”.

“There’s no need for a coalition. They stop supporting the murderous Israeli regime and they will see a safer region and a better situation even for the transfer of energy,” he said.

Maritime analysts told The National that the US stance in the Red Sea so far has been focused on deterrence rather than aggressive, which would likely embolden the Houthis to continue attacking ships.

“The US is not expanding the war into the Red Sea. US forces have maintained a defensive and de-escalatory posture in and around the Bab Al Mandeb during the past four weeks choosing not to respond with direct strikes despite dozens of Houthi attacks,” said Albert Vidal, a research analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“This task force’s main goal will be to uphold the freedom of navigation, a linchpin of US foreign policy, in the Red Sea and Bab Al Mandeb. Deterring the Houthis is a consequence of the operation, rather than a goal,” he added.

Updated: December 24, 2023, 4:36 PM