US and UK step up pressure on Houthi rebels to deter Red Sea shipping attacks

US and UK step up pressure on Houthi rebels to deter Red Sea shipping attacks

Unlock the Editor’s Digest for freeRoula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.The UK and the US have stepped up pressure on Houthi rebels as the Yemeni movement targets commercial vessels passing through the Red Sea, disrupting a critical maritime trade route.UK defence secretary Grant Shapps said on Monday that Britain was willing to take “direct action” against the Iranian-aligned group to “deter threats to freedom of navigation in the Red Sea”.Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Shapps said: “If we don’t protect the Red Sea, it risks emboldening those looking to threaten elsewhere, including in the South China Sea and Crimea.”His comments came a day after US Navy helicopters returned fire against small Houthi boats that were attacking an AP Moller-Maersk container ship in the Red Sea, sinking three of the rebels’ vessels and killing the crews. The Houthis said 10 of its members were dead or missing. The US military’s Central Command said the Houthis had fired on the helicopters as they responded to a distress call from the Maersk ship. Maersk said it was pausing all sailing through the Red Sea for 48 hours after the attack, the latest in a string of assaults by the Houthis in the waterway. A Houthi helicopter flies above a cargo ship in the Red Sea © Houthi Military Media via ReutersJohn Kirby, White House national security spokesman, said the US was not seeking a wider conflict in the Middle East or with the Houthis. “We’re going to do what we have to do to protect shipping” he told ABC’s Good Morning America show on Sunday, adding that the US had “significant national security interests in the region”.“We’re going to put the kind of forces we need in the region to protect those interests and we’re going to act in self-defence going forward,” Kirby said. The US has deployed two carrier strike groups to the region since Palestinian militant group Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel triggered the war with the Jewish state, and has expanded its maritime task force to counter the Houthis’ assaults on shipping. The Houthis have been targeting vessels since the war erupted.At least 1,200 people were killed in Hamas’s assault, according to Israeli officials. The militants also seized about 240 hostages. Israel responded with a ferocious air and land offensive against Hamas in Gaza, which has killed almost 23,000 people, according to Palestinian officials. The war has heightened tensions across the Middle East, triggering fears of a broader regional conflagration. RecommendedThe Houthis, who control most of northern Yemen and have been fighting in a nine-year civil war in the impoverished Arab state, are among several Iranian-backed militant groups that have launched attacks in support of Hamas. As well as attacking shipping, the rebels have fired missiles and drones at Israel. Shapps said the assaults on shipping had forced 12 international companies, including energy group BP and Maersk, to suspend passage through the Red Sea, and caused insurance costs to increase 10-fold since early December. “The Houthi attacks — which have increased 500 per cent from November to December — put innocent sailors lives at risk, exacerbate the humanitarian suffering in Yemen and are destabilising the wider region,” he said. “The effect is that container ships and oil and chemical tankers are having to take a 5,000-mile detour around Africa to reach Europe and elsewhere.”A UK government spokesperson said planning was “under way for a range of scenarios” to respond to the attacks. But the spokesperson added: “No decisions have yet been made and we continue to pursue all diplomatic routes.”

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