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Houthis: Houthis show no sign of ending ‘reckless’ Red Sea attacks as trade traffic picks up, says commander

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Yemen’s Houthi rebels show no signs of ending their “reckless” attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea, the top commander of US naval forces in the Middle East says, even as more nations join the international maritime mission to protect vessels in the vital waterway and trade traffic begins to pick up.

Since Operation Prosperity Guardian was announced just over 10 days ago, 1,200 merchant ships have traveled through the Red Sea region, and none had been hit by drone or missile strikes, Vice Adm. Brad Cooper said in an Associated Press interview, although the US military said that one ship reported being struck by a missile late Saturday.

Cooper said earlier that day that additional countries are expected to sign on to the mission. Denmark was the latest, announcing Friday it plans to send a frigate to the mission that Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin announced during a visit to Bahrain, where the Navy’s 5th Fleet is based, saying that “this is an international challenge that demands collective action”.

The Iran-backed Houthis, who say their attacks are aimed at Israel-linked ships in an effort to stop the Israeli offensive in Gaza, fired on the same container ship in two separate incidents over the weekend, drawing a US military response.

The narrow Bab el-Mandeb Strait connects the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea and then the Suez Canal. The crucial trade route links markets in Asia and Europe.

The seriousness of the attacks, several of which have damaged vessels, led multiple shipping companies to order their vessels to hold in place and not enter the strait until the security situation improved. Some major shippers were sending their ships around Africa and the Cape of Good Hope, adding time and costs to the journeys. Currently there are five warships from the United States, France, and the United Kingdom patrolling the waters of the southern Red Sea and the western Gulf of Aden, said Cooper, who heads the 5th Fleet. Since the operation started, the ships have shot down a total of 17 drones and four anti-ship ballistic missiles, he said. The US military said on Saturday it shot down two anti-ship ballistic missiles fired toward a Maersk container ship in the Red Sea after the ship reported it had been hit by a missile. Two Navy destroyers responded to the call for help, and the Denmark-owned vessel was reportedly seaworthy and no injuries were noted, according to a statement from US Central Command.

Hours later, four Houthi boats fired at the same ship and tried to board, Central Command said. US forces on two helicopters responded to the distress call and were also fired upon before they sank three of the Houthi vessels and killed the crews, Central Command said. The fourth boat fled the area. No damage to US personnel or equipment was reported.

There have been about two dozen attacks on international shipping by the Houthis since October 19.

Austin discussed the situation with the Dutch defense minister, Kajsa Ollongren, and they condemned the attacks as unacceptable and “profoundly destabilizing” to international order and global commerce, the Pentagon said Saturday.

The US has said that more than 20 nations are participating in the security mission, but a number of those nations have not acknowledged it publicly.

“I expect in the coming weeks we’re going to get additional countries,” Cooper said, noting Denmark’s recent announcement.

Cooper said the coalition is in direct communication with commercial ships to provide guidance on “maneuvering and the best practices to avoid being attacked,” and working closely with the shipping industry to coordinate security.

An international task force had been set up in April 2022 to improve maritime security in the region. But Cooper said Operation Prosperity Guardian has more ships and a persistent presence to assist vessels.

Since the operation started, the Houthis have stepped up their use of anti-ship ballistic missiles, Cooper said. “We are cleareyed that the Houthi reckless attacks will likely continue,” he said.

The Houthis seized Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in 2014, launching a grinding war against a Saudi-led coalition that sought to restore the government. The militants have sporadically targeted ships in the region, but the attacks increased since the start of the Israel-Hamas war.

The Houthi threatened to attack any vessel they believe is either going to or coming from Israel. That has escalated to apparently any vessel, with container ships and oil tankers flagged to countries such as Norway and Liberia being attacked or drawing missile fire.

The shipping company Maersk had announced earlier that it had decided to re-route its ships that have been paused for days outside the strait and Red Sea, and send them around Africa instead.

Maersk announced December 25 that it was going to resume sending ships through the strait, citing the operation. Cooper said another shipping company had also resumed using the route.

“Commerce is definitely flowing,” Cooper said.

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