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Houthis launch drone boat in Red Sea after US, allies issues 'final warning' against attacks

Vice Admiral Brad Cooper said that this was the first time that the Houthis had used an unmanned surface vessel (USV) since they launched their campaign against commercial ships in the Red Sea. At least 12 countries on Wednesday demanded Houthis to cease their attacks in the strategic waterway.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Washington Updated on: January 05, 2024 10:56 IST
The Red Sea, which has become the new area of geopolitical
Image Source : AP The Red Sea, which has become the new area of geopolitical tension after Houthi-led attacks on ships.

The Yemen-based Houthi rebels launched a sea drone on Thursday that detonated "within a couple of miles" of US Navy and commercial vessels in the Red Sea on Thursday, without causing any causalties or damage. This came hours after at least 12 countries, including the United States, Japan and Britain, issued a "final warning" to the group and warning them of unspecified "consequences" if they continued their attacks on ships in the strategic waterway.

The Iran-backed Houthis, who control much of Yemen, have launched waves of exploding drones and missiles at commercial vessels since November 19, trying to inflict a cost in what they say is a protest against Israel's military operations in Gaza. These actions have disrupted international shipping, causing some companies to suspend transits through the Red Sea and use the much longer and costlier journey through Africa.

Vice Admiral Brad Cooper who leads the US Navy operations in the Middle East said that this was the first time that the Houthis had used an unmanned surface vessel (USV) since they launched their campaign against commercial ships in the Red Sea after the Israel-Hamas war began, although they have used them before.

"It came within a couple of miles of ships operating in the area - merchant ships and US. Navy ships - and we all watched as it exploded," Cooper said, adding that the target of the attack was not clear. There have been a total of 25 attacks against merchant vessels by the Houthis transiting the southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, he further informed.

Pentagon spokesperson Pat Ryder would not say whether any military action would follow Thursday’s launch of the sea drone. ″I’ll let the statement speak for itself, which, again, represented many nations around the world and highlighted that if these strikes don’t stop, there will be consequences,” Ryder said.

US warning to Houthis

US Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Christopher Lu said at an emergency meeting on Wednesday that Iran has supplied the Houthis with money and advanced weapons systems, including drones, land attack cruise missiles and ballistic missiles. He said Iran also has been deeply involved in planning the Houthis’ attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea.

A statement Wednesday signed by the United States, Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore and the United Kingdom gave the Houthis what a senior Biden administration official described as a final warning.

"Let our message now be clear: we call for the immediate end of these illegal attacks and the release of unlawfully detained vessels and crews. The Houthis will bear the responsibility of the consequences should they continue to threaten lives, the global economy, and the free flow of commerce in the region’s critical waterways," the countries said in the statement.

"I would not anticipate another warning," said a senior Biden administration official after the statement.

US military action against Houthis

Last month, the US military said that it shot down two anti-ship ballistic missiles fired toward a container ship by Yemen’s Houthi rebels in the Red Sea. Hours later, four boats tried to attack the same ship, but US forces opened fire, killing several of the armed crews, the US Central Command said. No one was injured on the ship.

A contract-embarked security team on the ship returned fire, the central command said. US helicopters from the USS Dwight D Eisenhower aircraft carrier and GRAVELY responded to the distress call and while issuing verbal warnings to the attackers, the small boat crews opened fire on the helicopters using small arms, the statement said.

“The US Navy helicopters returned fire in self-defence,” sinking three of the four boats, killing the crews while the fourth boat fled the area, CENTCOM said, and no damage to US personnel or equipment was reported.

The United States and other countries last month launched Operation Prosperity Guardian to protect civilian vessels, which Cooper said now included contributions from 22 countries. So far, Cooper said US warships and US partners have shot down two cruise missiles, six anti-ship ballistic missiles and 11 drones. He also said that 1,500 ships have been able to transit safely since the start of the operation.

Retired four-star Marine general Frank McKenzie, who led US forces in the Middle East until retiring in 2022, said the Biden administration's response to attacks in the Red Sea and against US troops at bases in Iraq and Syria has been too "tentative" and "unfocused". "To reset deterrence, we must apply violence that Tehran understands," McKenzie wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

Why are Houthis attacking the ships in Red Sea?

The Houthis have said their attacks on commercial shipping target vessels with Israeli links or were sailing to Israel. However, many vessels have had no Israeli connection and were not bound for Israeli ports, and major shipping lines have suspended their operations through the Red Sea.

Cooper said the ships that have been attacked have direct connections to 55 countries. "So regardless of the vessel's company ownership or its destination, these Houthi attacks are for sure destabilizing and contrary to international law and clearly ... must stop immediately," Cooper said.

Currently, 10-15% of global trade passes through the Red Sea, and international shipping companies are having to reroute through the Cape of Good Hope, adding weeks to the delivery of key goods and materials, including oil and gas. 

(with inputs from Reuters, AP)

ALSO READ | US forces swing into action, shoot down ballistic missiles after Houthi rebel attack vessels in Red Sea


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