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US launches another barrage of missiles at Houthis, relists Iran-backed group as terrorists

US officials said the "Specially Designated Global Terrorist" (SDGT) designation for Houthis was aimed at cutting off funding and weapons the Houthis have used to attack or hijack ships in vital Red Sea shipping lanes. The Houthi attacks on Red Sea ships have disrupted global shipping and commerce.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Washington Updated on: January 18, 2024 8:05 IST
US, US attacks Houthis, Houthi rebels, Yemen
Image Source : REUTERS/FILE A Houthi helicopter over a hijacked vessel in the Red Sea.

Red Sea crisis: The United States military fired another wave of ship and submarine-launched missile strikes against Houthi-controlled sites in Yemen on Wednesday, according to officials, marking the fourth time it has directly targeted the group as violence that arose in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war threatens to spill over the Middle East. The strike came after the US officially relisted the Houthi rebels on its list of specially designated global terrorists.

US officials said the "Specially Designated Global Terrorist" (SDGT) designation, which entails harsh sanctions for the Iran-backed group, was aimed at cutting off funding and weapons the Houthis have used to attack or hijack ships in vital Red Sea shipping lanes. "This designation is an important tool to impede terrorist funding to the Houthis, further restrict their access to financial markets, and hold them accountable for their actions," White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a statement.

According to the US Central Command, the military struck 14 Iran-backed Houthi missiles "that were loaded to be fired in Houthi controlled areas" in Yemen. "These missiles on launch rails presented an imminent threat to merchant vessels and US Navy ships in the region and could have been fired at any time, prompting US forces to exercise their inherent right and obligation to defend themselves," it said.

The latest attack by the US military occurred when a one-way attack drone was launched from a Houthi-controlled area in Yemen and struck the Marshall Islands-flagged, US-owned ship M/V Genco Picardy in the Gulf of Aden. Despite sanctions and military attacks, the Houthi rebels have remained undeterred in their campaign to attack commercial and military ships.

The attack on Genco Picardy happened some 70 miles (110 kilometers) southeast of Aden, where the drone smashed into the vessel, said the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, an arm of the British navy that oversees Mideast waterways. The ship's captain reported there was a fire on board that had been extinguished, it said.

Yahya Saree, a military spokesman for the Houthis, identified the ship attacked as the bulk carrier Genco Picardy. Satellite-tracking data had put that vessel off Saudi Arabia in recent days as it was bound for India. The Houthis “confirm that a response to the American and British attacks is inevitably coming, and that any new attack will not remain without response and punishment,” Saree said in a prerecorded video address.

Houthi reactions to sanctions

The relisting of Houthis as terrorists came as US President Joe Biden's administration issued "carve-outs" aimed at avoiding an impact on Yemen's population, which relies on food imports and humanitarian aid, and pledged to conduct outreach to groups including aid agencies before the designation comes into effect in 30 days.

It is important to note that the Houthis were added to two lists designating them as terrorists in 2020 during the administration of former President Donald Trump, a day before his term ended. The decision sparked concern from the UN, aid groups and American lawmakers who said the sanctions would disrupt the flow of food, fuel and other commodities to Yemen.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken revoked the designations days after taking office in 2021, citing concerns sanctions would disrupt flows of vital humanitarian goods to Yemen. On Wednesday, even though Houthis were relisted as an SDGT group, they were not listed as a "foreign terrorist organisation", which includes stricter prohibitions on providing material support to those on the list and would mean automatic travel bans.

Houthi spokesperson Mohammed Abdulsalam on Wednesday told Reuters that the designation would not affect operations, which the group says are in support of the Palestinians and target Israeli ships or ships heading to Israel. 

Meanwhile, the US Treasury Department issued licenses authorising certain transactions involving the Houthis, including transactions related to agricultural commodities, medicine, medical devices, telecommunications and personal remittances. They also authorised transactions involving the Houthis related to port and airport operations as well as refined petroleum products in Yemen.

Deepening crisis in the Middle East

The Houthis' campaign has disrupted global commerce, stoked fears of inflation and deepened concern that fallout from the Israel-Hamas war could destabilize the Middle East. The US has also strongly warned Iran to cease providing weapons to the Houthis.

There have been several incidents before the Wednesday attack on Houthi infrastructure. The US launched a third attack against Yemen-based Houthi rebels on Tuesday by hitting four anti-ship missiles in a Houthi-controlled part of the country after the Iran-backed group struck a Greek-owned vessel in the Red Sea. The Greek-owned vessel, the Zografia, was sailing from Vietnam to Israel with 24 crew on board and was out of cargo when attacked, according to sources.

The Iran-aligned Houthi group has threatened to expand the range of targets of its attacks in the Red Sea - which it says are a response to Israel's bombardment of Gaza - to include US ships in response to American and British strikes on its sites in Yemen. This came after the US led a massive attack on the Houthis on Friday, targeting 60 targets in 28 locations.

The attacks by the US and Houthis follow after the group struck a US-owned ship on Monday near Yemen's coast in the Gulf of Aden. The attack against the MV Gibraltar Eagle ship marked the first time that the Houthis have successfully struck a US-owned or operated ship. The US Central Command said that the vessel, a Marshall Islands-flagged bulk carrier owned and operated by the US-based Eagle Bulk, suffered no injuries or any significant damage.

The attacks have further sparked concerns over the spread of the Israel-Hamas war as the Yemen-based rebels threatened retaliation for an attack by America and allied countries after weeks of assaults on shipping in the Red Sea. The Houthis have targeted that crucial corridor linking Asian and Mideast energy and cargo shipments to the Suez Canal onward to Europe over the Israel-Hamas war, attacks that threaten to widen that conflict into a regional conflagration. Ship-tracking data on Monday showed at least 15 tankers altering course in response to the escalating conflict.

(with inputs from agencies)

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