WASHINGTON — The United States and Britain struck Huthi rebels over the Iran-backed group’s attacks on shipping in the Red Sea, US media reported Thursday, as witnesses reported air strikes in Yemeni cities.
The strikes involved fighter jets and Tomahawk missiles, several US media said. US officials did not immediately confirm the reports when contacted by AFP.
Air strikes hit a number of cities in Yemen, where the Huthis control a swathe of territory, a Huthi source and witnesses said.
The Huthis have carried out a growing number of attacks on the key international sea route since the Gaza war erupted with Hamas’s unprecedented attack on Israel on Oct 7.
But the Western strikes risk turning an already tense situation in the Middle East into a wider conflagration pitting the United States and Israel against Iran and its regional proxies.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also convened an emergency cabinet meeting in London on Thursday to discuss the strikes against the Huthis, UK media reported.
The Huthi rebels say they are acting in response to Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip, and have launched a series of drones and missiles towards Israel.
They have controlled a major part of Yemen since a civil war erupted there in 2014, and are part of the Iran-backed so-called “axis of resistance” arrayed against Israel.
The United States and its allies had issued a series of increasingly stern warnings to the Huthis to stop the shipping attacks, although Washington has been cautious about the risks of further inflaming regional tensions.
Washington set up an international coalition in December – dubbed Operation Prosperity Guardian – to protect maritime traffic in the area, through which 12 per cent of world trade flows.
Twelve nations led by the United States then warned the Huthis on Jan 3 of “consequences” unless they immediately stopped attacks on commercial vessels.
But late Tuesday the Huthis launched what London called the most significant attack yet by the Yemeni rebels, with US and British forces shooting down 18 drones and three missiles.
British Defense Secretary Grant Shapps then said on Wednesday that “enough is enough” and told the Huthis to “watch this space.”
The UN Security Council also Wednesday urged an immediate halt to the attacks on shipping, warning of a threat to regional peace and security.
The final straw for the Western allies appeared to come early on Thursday when the US military said the Huthis fired an anti-ship ballistic missile into a shipping lane in the Gulf of Aden.
It was the 27th attack on international shipping in the Red Sea since Nov 19, the US military said.
The intensifying attacks have caused shipping companies to bypass the route and instead divert around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, sparking fears of a shock to the global economy.
The Huthis say they only target vessels linked to Israel or its allies.
The United States strengthened its military posture in the region immediately after the Oct 7 attacks on Israel, and warned Iran and its allies not to escalate the situation. — AFP