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Biden warns of more strikes on Yemen’s Houthis if Red Sea attacks persist

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President Joe Biden vowed further military action against Yemen’s Houthi forces if they keep up their attacks on shipping in the Red Sea despite dozens of U.S. and British air strikes on the Iran-backed group’s facilities.

Intensifying concerns about a widening regional conflict, U.S. and British warplanes, ships and submarines this week launched missiles against targets across Yemen controlled by the group, which has cast its maritime campaign as support for Palestinians under siege by Israel in Hamas-ruled Gaza.

Even as Houthi leaders swore retaliation, Biden warned on Friday that he could order more strikes if they do not stop their attacks on merchant and military vessels in one of the world’s most economically vital waterways.

“We will make sure that we respond to the Houthis if they continue this outrageous behavior,” Biden told reporters during a stop in Pennsylvania on Friday.

Witnesses confirmed explosions early on Friday, Yemen time, at military bases near airports in the capital Sanaa and Yemen’s third city Taiz, a naval base at Yemen’s main Red Sea port Hodeidah and military sites in the coastal Hajjah governorate.

White House spokesperson John Kirby said the strikes had targeted the Houthis’ ability to store, launch and guide missiles or drones, which the group has used in recent months to threaten Red Sea shipping. The Pentagon said the U.S.-British assault reduced the Houthis’ capacity to launch fresh attacks. The U.S. military said 60 targets in 28 sites were hit. The Houthis, who have controlled most of Yemen for nearly a decade, said five fighters were killed, but they vowed to continue their attacks on regional shipping.

The UK Maritime Trade Operations information hub said it had received reports of a missile landing in the sea around 500 metres (1,600 feet) from a ship about 90 nautical miles southeast of the Yemeni port of Aden.

The shipping security firm Ambrey identified it as a Panama-flagged tanker carrying Russian oil.

Drone footage on the Houthis’ al-Masirah TV showed hundreds of thousands of people in Sanaa chanting slogans denouncing Israel and the United States.

“Your strikes on Yemen are terrorism,” said Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, a member of the Houthi Supreme Political Council. “The United States is the Devil.”

Biden, whose administration removed the Houthis from a State Department list of “foreign terrorist organizations” in 2021, was asked by reporters if he felt the term “terrorist” described the movement now. “I think they are,” he said.

SPILLOVER

The Red Sea crisis is part of the violent regional spillover of Israel’s war with Hamas, an Iran-backed Islamist group, in the Palestinian enclave of Gaza.

Hamas militants rampaged through southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and seizing 240 hostages. Israel has responded by laying waste to large sections of Gaza in an effort to annihilate Hamas. More than 23,000 Palestinians have been killed.

Tobias Borck, a Middle East security expert at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, said the Houthis wanted to portray themselves as champions of the Palestinian cause but were mainly concerned about retaining power.

At the United Nations Security Council, U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield defended the Yemen strikes, saying they were intended to “to disrupt and degrade the Houthis’ ability to continue the reckless attacks against vessels and commercial shipping.”

Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said earlier that the U.S. and Britain “singlehandedly triggered a spillover of the conflict (in Gaza) to the entire region.”

In Washington, Kirby said, “We’re not interested in … a war with Yemen.”

In a poor country only just emerging from nearly a decade of war that brought millions to the brink of famine, people fearing an extended new conflict queued at gas stations.

OIL PRICE JUMPS

The price of Brent crude oil rose more than $2 on Friday on concern that supplies could be disrupted, but later gave up half its gain.

Biden said on Friday he was “very concerned” about the impact of war in the Middle East on oil prices.

Commercial ship-tracking data showed at least nine oil tankers stopping or diverting from the Red Sea.

The strikes follow months of raids by Houthi fighters, who have boarded ships they claimed were Israeli or heading for Israel. Many of the vessels had no known connection to Israel.

The United States and some allies sent a naval task force in December, and recent days saw increasing escalation. On Tuesday, the United States and Britain shot down 21 missiles and drones.

However, not all major U.S. allies chose to back the strikes inside Yemen.

The Netherlands, Australia, Canada and Bahrain provided logistical and intelligence support, while Germany, Denmark, New Zealand and South Korea signed a joint statement defending the attacks and warning of further action.

But Italy, Spain and France chose not to sign or participate, fearing a wider escalation.

A senior U.S. official accused Tehran of providing the Yemeni group with military capabilities and intelligence to carry out their attacks.

Iran condemned the strikes but there has been no sign so far that Iran is seeking direct conflict.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said the White House could “restore security across the region” by stopping its “all-out military and security cooperation” with Israel.

Houthi attacks have forced commercial ships to take a longer, costlier route around Africa, creating fears of a new bout of inflation and supply chain disruption. Container shipping rates for key global routes have soared this week.

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