By Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Vivek Shankar and Thomas Fuller
Iranian-backed Houthi militants in Yemen have launched a fresh round of attacks in shipping lanes crucial for global trade, damaging a U.S.-owned commercial ship earlier this week after attempting to hit an American warship the day before.
The strikes came just days after the U.S. and British militaries unleashed a powerful barrage on militant sites in Yemen, and the Houthi response made clear how difficult it might prove to remove the threat posed to shipping in and around the Red Sea.
U.S. forces are bracing for a much larger retaliatory attack from the Houthis, who began targeting ships after the war in the Gaza Strip began and are preparing escalating responses, senior U.S. military officials said.
After the United States and Britain hit more than 60 Houthi targets last week with more than 150 precision-guided munitions, U.S. officials said the militants still retained about three-quarters of their ability to fire missiles and drones at ships transiting the Red Sea. Many of their weapons systems are on mobile platforms and can be readily moved or hidden, officials said.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of Britain, nevertheless, said Monday that the airstrikes had achieved their objectives and showed that Britain was “prepared to back our words with actions.” Speaking in Parliament, Sunak described the strikes as “limited, not escalatory” and a “necessary and proportionate response to a direct threat.”
British Defense Secretary Grant Shapps told Sky News: “We never thought that this would remove all of their facilities. That wasn’t the goal. The goal was to send a very clear message.”
The Houthi missile fired Monday hit the Gibraltar Eagle, a bulk carrier owned by an American company, Eagle Bulk Shipping, and that was sailing under the flag of the Marshall Islands.
The company said in a statement that the vessel had been carrying steel products. It began its journey in South Korea and had been headed toward the Suez Canal but turned around Monday, according to data from Marine Traffic, which provides real-time information about the positions of ships.
Earlier Monday, U.S. forces detected an anti-ship ballistic missile fired toward the southern Red Sea commercial shipping lanes, U.S. Central Command said. “The missile failed in flight and impacted on land in Yemen,” it said.
A spokesperson for the Houthis, Yahya Sarea, said in a statement Monday that the group had carried out a military operation targeting an American ship in the Gulf of Aden with “a number” of missiles. He said the Houthis had acted “in defense of the Palestinian people in Gaza, who are being exposed, until this moment, to the most horrific type of massacres by the Zionist entity.”
The group considers “all American and British ships” to be enemy targets, Sarea said, and warned that its response to the U.S. and British attacks “is coming.”
On Sunday, the United States said it had shot down a missile fired by Houthi fighters at a Navy destroyer, the USS Laboon. A U.S. fighter jet near the coast of the city of Hudaydah shot down the missile and no injuries or damage were reported, the U.S. military said.
The Houthi attacks over the past three months have collapsed the volume of cargo transiting the Suez Canal, as shipping companies have diverted their vessels around the southern coast of Africa. The volume of containers transported through the Red Sea in December measured half of what it was the previous December, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy.
If the conflict persists, Europe could be faced with significantly higher costs, economists say. The price of shipping a container from Asia to Europe has more than doubled since the Houthis began their attacks in mid-November, the Kiel institute calculated.
A number of car factories in Europe have said they will suspend production because of disruptions to their supply chains, and the Reuters news agency Monday reported that Qatar had suspended shipments of liquefied natural gas via the Red Sea. More than a dozen oil tankers have steered clear of the Red Sea since last week’s U.S.-led strikes, the news agency reported.
The Houthi attacks, and their militancy toward Israel and the United States in the midst of the Israel-Hamas war, have increased the militants’ stature in the Middle East.
Over the weekend, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel marked the 100th day of the war by vowing to continue the fighting until “total victory” over Hamas. “Nobody will stop us,” he said.
Hamas led the Oct. 7 assaults on southern Israel that, the Israelis say, killed around 1,200 people. The Israeli military response has killed more than 23,000 Palestinians, a majority of them women and children, according to Gaza health officials.
On Monday, the Palestine Red Crescent Society said it had resumed emergency and rescue services in Gaza City, in the north of the strip, more than two months after the Israeli ground offensive forced it to halt operations and shut down its hospital.
Weeks of intense airstrikes and the Israeli ground offensive had essentially cut off the north. The resumption of services is possible now because the Israeli military is withdrawing forces from the areas around some hospitals in northern Gaza as it turns its focus to the south, said Nebal Farsakh, a Red Crescent spokesperson.
Nearly a dozen rescue crew members arrived at Al-Quds Hospital in Gaza City, which is run by the Red Crescent and was a hub of the group’s operations before it ran out of fuel and shut down on Nov. 12. Farsakh said they were “shocked by the massive destruction” they found and determined that they could not work there.
“The hospital is completely burned from the outside, and inside all the equipment was completely destroyed,” she said.
On Monday, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said at a news conference that the intensive phase of ground maneuvers in northern Gaza had ended and that forces there were now dealing with “pockets of resistance.”