US and UK hint at military response to Houthi Red Sea attacks as UN demands halt

But Yemeni rebels say attacks will continue after US shot down barrage of missiles over Red Sea

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Tel Aviv, Israel, on January 9. AP
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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday that the Houthis in Yemen can expect consequences after their latest drone and missile attack against shipping in the Red Sea.

But the Iran-backed rebel group said it would continue to attack vessels, even as the UN Security Council adopted a resolution demanding a halt to such actions.

The Houthis claimed responsibility for firing a barrage of drones and rockets towards international shipping lanes on Tuesday, and said they were trying to hit a US Navy ship.

The US and its allies have repeatedly warned the Houthis that such attacks will not go unanswered, although so far the international maritime coalition patrolling the Red Sea has not struck Houthi missile-launch bases in Yemen.

“I’m not going to telegraph or preview anything that that might happen,” Mr Blinken said in Bahrain.

"If this continues, as it did yesterday, there will be consequences."

On the X social media platform, a Houthi official said the group would continue to attack ships associated with Israel until the siege of Gaza is lifted.

At the UN, the Security Council adopted a resolution condemning and demanding an immediate halt to attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on commercial vessels in the Red Sea.

"The Houthis, and anyone who enables them, need to hear a clear message from this Council: these attacks must stop," said the US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

UK Defence Secretary Grant Shapps earlier suggested a military response against the Houthis was imminent.

"Watch this space," he told reporters when asked if the US-led task force would fulfil its threats of armed response against the Houthis.

Mr Shapps said he had been in touch with fellow military leaders, including in Saudi Arabia, and “we are all agreed in one voice, this cannot continue, and we won't allow it to continue".

At the White House, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the US would do "everything we can to protect shipping in the Red Sea", noting that the Houthis "will bear the consequences" for their actions.

"We're going to continue to co-ordinate and consult closely with our allies and partners about the appropriate next steps should these attacks continue," Mr Kirby said.

The Iran-backed Houthis fired 18 one-way attack drones, two anti-ship cruise missiles and one anti-ship ballistic missile towards international shipping lanes where dozens of merchant vessels were at sea, the US military's Central Command said.

US and UK jets and ships thwarted the "complex attack".

Avi Melamed, a former Israeli intelligence official and senior government official analysing Arab affairs, said threats alone will not deter the Houthis.

Mr Melamed suggested a failure to respond would be like former US president Barack Obama not taking action against Syrian President Bashar Al Assad for crossing the "red line" of using chemical weapons.

"This war has thus far provided the US government and its military the opportunity to strengthen its image in the region, but this is a testing moment for that image," he said.

"Will the US respond or maintain its defensive stance and thus suffer the loss of the image boost it has thus far gained?”

Mr Blinken, who is ending a week-long tour of the Middle East as he tries to prevent the Israel-Gaza war from spilling into a broader conflict, stressed that his message was extended to Tehran as well as the Houthis.

"We've also repeatedly tried to make clear to Iran, as other countries have, as well, that the support that they're providing to the Houthis, including for these actions, needs to stop," he said.

Tuesday's attack was the 26th the Houthis have launched since October 7, Central Command said.

There were no injuries or damage reported.

Ellie Sennett contributed to this report.

Updated: January 11, 2024, 5:59 AM