Yemen’s Houthi rebels fired their largest-ever barrage of drones and missiles targeting shipping in the Red Sea, forcing the United States and British navies to shoot down the projectiles in a major naval engagement, authorities said Wednesday.
No damage was immediately reported.
The attack by the Iranian-backed Houthis came despite a planned United Nations Security Council vote later Wednesday to potentially condemn and demand an immediate halt to the attacks by the rebels, who say their assaults are aimed at stopping Israel’s war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
However, their targets increasingly have tenuous — or no — relationship with Israel and imperil a crucial trade route linking Asia and the Middle East to Europe.
That raises the risk of a US retaliatory strike on Yemen that could upend an uneasy cease-fire that’s held in the Arab world’s poorest country.
The assault happened off the Yemeni port cities of Hodeida and Mokha, according to the private intelligence firm Ambrey.
In the Hodeida attack, Ambrey said ships described over radio seeing missiles and drones, with U.S.-allied warships in the area urging “vessels to proceed at maximum speed.”
Off Mokha, ships saw missiles fired, a drone in the air and small vessels trailing them, Ambrey said early Wednesday.
The British military’s United Kingdom Marine Trade Operations also acknowledged the attack off Hodeida.
The US military’s Central Command said the “complex attack” launched by the Houthis included bomb-carrying drones, anti-ship cruise missiles and one anti-ship ballistic missile.
It said 18 drones, two cruise missiles and the anti-ship missile were downed by F-18s from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, as well as by American Arleigh Burke-class destroyers the USS Gravely, the USS Laboon and the USS Mason, as well as the United Kingdom’s HMS Diamond.
“This is the 26th Houthi attack on commercial shipping lanes in the Red Sea since Nov. 19,” Central Command said. “There were no injuries or damage reported.”
“Vessels are advised to transit with caution and report any suspicious activity,” the UKTMO added.
British Defense Secretary Grant Shapps described the assault as “the largest attack by the Iranian-backed Houthis in the Red Sea to date,” saying the Diamond used Sea Viper missiles and guns to shoot down multiple drones.
“The UK alongside allies have previously made clear that these illegal attacks are completely unacceptable and if continued the Houthis will bear the consequences,” Shapps said in a statement. “We will take the action needed to protect innocent lives and the global economy.”
The Houthis, a Shiite group that’s held Yemen’s capital since 2014, did not formally acknowledge launching the attacks.
However, the pan-Arab satellite news network Al Jazeera quoted an anonymous Houthi military official saying their forces “targeted a ship linked to Israel in the Red Sea,” without elaborating.
The Houthis say their attacks aim to end the pounding Israeli air-and-ground offensive targeting the Gaza Strip amid that country’s war on Hamas.
However, the links to the ships targeted in the rebel assaults have grown more tenuous as the attacks continue.
The Red Sea links the Mideast and Asia to Europe via the Suez Canal, and its narrow Bab el-Mandeb Strait.
That strait is only 18 miles wide at its narrowest point, limiting traffic to two channels for inbound and outbound shipments, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
Nearly 10% of all oil traded at sea passes through it. An estimated $1 trillion in goods pass through the strait annually.
A US draft resolution before the UN Security Council, obtained late Tuesday by The Associated Press, says the Houthi attacks impede global commerce “and undermine navigational rights and freedoms as well as regional peace and security.”
The resolution would demand the immediate release of the first ship the Houthis attacked, the Galaxy Leader, a Japanese-operated cargo ship with links to an Israeli company that it seized in November along with its crew.
An initial draft of the resolution would have recognized “the right of member states, in accordance with international law, to take appropriate measures to defend their merchant and naval vessels.”
The final draft is weaker, eliminating any U.N. recognition of a country’s right to defend its ships. Instead, it would affirm that the navigational rights and freedoms of merchant and commercial vessels must be respected, and take note “of the right of member states, in accordance with international law, to defend their vessels from attacks, including those that undermine navigational rights and freedoms.”
A US-led coalition of nations has been patrolling the Red Sea to try and prevent the attacks. American troops in one conflict sank Houthi vessels and killed 10 rebel fighters.
“Let our message now be clear: we call for the immediate end of these illegal attacks and release of unlawfully detained vessels and crews,” the countries said last Wednesday. “The Houthis will bear the responsibility of the consequences should they continue to threaten lives, the global economy, and free flow of commerce in the region’s critical waterways.”
There’s been no broad retaliatory strike yet, despite warnings from the US. However, Tuesday’s attack appeared to be testing what response, if any, would come from Washington.
Meanwhile, a separate, tentative cease-fire between the Houthis and a Saudi-led coalition fighting on behalf of Yemen’s exiled government has held for months despite that country’s long war.
That’s raised concerns that any wider conflict in the sea — or a potential reprisal strike from Western forces — could reignite those tensions in the Arab world’s poorest nation. It also may draw Iran, which so far has largely avoided directly entering the wider Israeeeel-Hamas war, further into the conflict.