The United States on Tuesday condemned “unprecedented” attacks on merchant ships in the Red Sea carried out by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who said they were determined to continue them despite the creation of a new multinational maritime protection force.
The wave of drone and missile attacks, the latest targeting two ships on Monday, threatens to disrupt global trade flows as major shipping firms cut off passage through the Bab al-Mandeb Strait .
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warned of these attacks which “threaten” the free movement of goods, a day after announcing the creation of a coalition of ten countries to put an end to them.
“Secretary Austin condemned the Houthi attacks on international shipping and global commerce, calling them unprecedented and unacceptable, emphasizing that these attacks threatened the free flow of commerce,” according to a statement from the Pentagon spokesperson, General Pat Ryder.
Mr. Austin spoke during a virtual meeting with senior representatives from 43 countries, as well as the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), dedicated to growing threat to navigation in the Red Sea, the text specifies.
Pentagon chief “urged participants to join U.S.-led and other international initiatives […] to restore security in the Red Sea and prevent any further aggression by the Houthis,” he continues.
The alliance announced Monday includes the United States, the United Kingdom, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles and Spain.
But the Houthis, supported by Iran, have said they are determined to continue their attacks.
“Even if America mobilizes the entire world, our military operations will not stop […] regardless of the sacrifices it costs us,” Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a senior Yemeni rebel official, said on social network X.
Their main spokesperson, Mohammed Abdelsalam, agreed, saying on X that the Houthis were acting in “solidarity with the Palestinian people and against the blockade of [la bande de] Gaza.”
The United Kingdom announced on Tuesday that the destroyer HMS Diamond has joined the new maritime protection force.
“These illegal attacks pose an unacceptable threat to the global economy […] and are likely to lead to higher fuel prices,” said UK Defense Minister Grant Shapps.
Italy also announced sending the frigate Virgilio Fasan to the Red Sea to join the force.
Spain, which said it wanted to be part of this force, stressed that its decision depended on those of the EU and NATO and that it “will not participate [it] not [à la force] unilaterally.”
According to the Pentagon, the Houthis have launched more than 100 attacks, targeting 10 merchant ships linked to more than 35 countries. In November, they seized the Galaxy Leader, taking its 25 crew members hostage. The ship and its crew are still in Yemen.
“Difficult to intercept”
Insurance prices soared, prompting major shipping companies to reroute their ships around the southern tip of Africa, despite additional fuel costs incurred by a much longer journey.
Maersk said on Tuesday that all ships scheduled to pass through the Red Sea would now be rerouted around Africa via the Cape of Good Hope.
According to the Danish shipowner, 20 ships are affected, half waiting east of the Gulf of Aden and the rest south of Suez in the Red Sea or north of Suez in the Mediterranean.
The Red Sea is a “sea highway” connecting the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, and therefore Europe to Asia. Around 20,000 ships pass through the Suez Canal each year, another gateway for ships passing through the Red Sea.
According to analysts, the maritime force announced by Washington will be ineffective.
“The Houthis have a significant arsenal of drones and missiles […] and some will be difficult to intercept,” Andreas Krieg, professor at King’s College London, told AFP.
Torbjorn Soltvedt, of the risk analysis company Verisk Maplecroft, believes that the Houthis also have “the capacity to deploy anti-ship mines and carry out coordinated operations with boats and helicopters”.