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Middle East tensions escalate as US-led forces strike Houthis after Red Sea attacks

The Pentagon said the strikes were carried out in Yemen in light of the "illegal, dangerous, and destabilizing” Iranian-backed Houthi attacks against US and international vessels

Middle East tensions escalate as US-led forces strike Houthis after Red Sea attacks
[Source photo: Chetan Jha/Press Insider]

The United States and the United Kingdom launched airstrikes in Yemen in response to the Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea, potentially escalating the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza into a regional conflict. 

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement that the militaries of the US and the UK, with support from Australia, Bahrain, Canada, and the Netherlands, conducted strikes against military targets in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen on 11 January. 

Explosions were reported throughout the country, Reuters said, citing witnesses. 

The US is leading a maritime task force to protect commercial vessels passing through the Red Sea from attacks by Houthi militants. ‘Operation Prosperity Guardian’ was announced last month as attacks on vessels increased in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

The Pentagon said the strikes were carried out in Yemen in light of the “illegal, dangerous, and destabilizing Iranian-backed Houthi attacks against US and international vessels and commercial vessels from many countries lawfully transiting the Red Sea.”

The Houthis have been attacking commercial ships linked to Israel or bound for Israeli ports in response to Israeli bombardments in Gaza that have killed over 20,000 people, most of them civilians. 

The Houthi attacks are aimed at pressurizing the US and other Western countries into forcing Israel into a ceasefire. 

The US says it supports Israeli action in Gaza, aimed to wipe out Hamas following the militant group’s 7 October attack which killed 1,200 people. 

Since 19 November, the Houthis have launched more than two dozen attacks on vessels, including commercial vessels, creating an international challenge that demands collective action, the Pentagon said. 

“Today, a coalition of countries committed to upholding the rules-based international order demonstrated our shared commitment to defending US and international vessels and commercial vessels exercising navigational rights and freedoms from illegal and unjustifiable attacks,” Austin said. 

US President Joe Biden said the 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.” 

Britain’s ministry of defence said that “early indications are that the Houthis’ ability to threaten merchant shipping has taken a blow,” Reuters reported. 

Following the coalition strikes, a Houthi spokesperson vowed to continue targeting ships heading towards Israel. 

Calling the strikes a breach of international laws, Iran said the attacks are a clear violation of Yemen’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. 

“These attacks will only contribute to insecurity and instability in the region,” Iran’s foreign ministry spokesperson Nasser Kannani said. 

Saudi Arabia, which waged a decade-long war with the Houthis for control over Yemen, called for restraint and said it was monitoring the situation with “great concern”.

“The kingdom emphasizes the importance of maintaining the security and stability of the Red Sea region, as the freedom of navigation in it is an international demand,” the Saudi foreign ministry said. 

Jaishankar discusses maritime security with Blinken

External affairs minister S Jaishankar on Thursday said he spoke to US secretary of state Anthony Blinken over the maritime security challenges in the Red Sea region. 

“A good discussion this evening with my friend US Sec Blinken. Our conversation focused on maritime security challenges, especially the Red Sea region. Appreciated his insights on the ongoing situation in West Asia, including Gaza. Exchanged perspectives on developments pertaining to the Ukraine conflict,” Jaishankar said in a post on X (formerly Twitter). 

With instability across the shipping lanes threatening Indian interests, the Navy has deployed its warships to the Arabian Sea. The decision was taken last month after MV Chem Pluto, a Liberian-flagged oil tanker with 21 Indian crew members, came under a drone attack on 23 December off India’s coast.

Another commercial ship, MV Sai Baba, sailing under the Gabon flag with 25 Indian crew members on board, came under a drone attack in the Red Sea the same week. 

The attacks were suspected to be carried out by a drone launched by Houthi militants. 

An inter-ministerial group that will include senior officials from the departments of commerce and financial services, and ministries of defence, external affairs and ports will meet next week to assess the impact of the conflict in the Red Sea on India’s trade, Indian media reported.

The crisis in the Red Sea is affecting India’s merchandise trade with Europe, the east coast of the US, and Latin America.

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