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March 4, 2024

Escalating Tensions in the Red Sea as Houthis Target Commercial and Military Vessels

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Jan 30, 2024

Tensions have dramatically escalated in the Red Sea region over the past week, with Yemen’s Houthi rebels carrying out multiple missile and drone attacks targeting commercial tankers and US and allied naval vessels. The attacks have prompted retaliatory strikes from the US and allies while spurring calls for de-escalation from global powers.

Houthis Claim Attacks on Commercial Tankers

On January 25th, the Iran-backed Houthis claimed responsibility for an attack on the Liberian-flagged crude oil tanker M/T Rumford, operated by Zodiac Maritime and owned by Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer. The Houthis reported that the attack was carried out using two unmanned suicide drone boats laden with explosives. While the Rumford reported no damage or casualties, the brazen assault represented the first Houthi attack directly targeting a commercial vessel since the group temporarily suspended offensive operations in late 2022.

The following day, the Houthis launched additional assaults, claiming attacks on another Zodiac Maritime crude oil tanker, the M/T Pacific Zircon, as well as a liquified petroleum gas (LPG) tanker linked to the UK-based company BP. Dramatic photos and videos circulated on social media showing the Pacific Zircon engulfed in flames from a presumed Houthi drone boat strike. The tanker’s crew ultimately extinguished the fire, allowing the vessel to continue on its voyage, albeit with apparent damage. There were no casualties reported.

In claiming responsibility for these attacks, Houthi military spokesman Yahya Saree stated they were retaliation for the Saudi-led coalition’s alleged regional aggression and tightening blockade on Yemen. The Houthis warned of further escalation, threatening vital shipping lanes like the Red Sea and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.

The following table summarizes reported Houthi attacks on commercial vessels from January 25th-27th:

Vessel Name Owner/Operator Date of Attack Weapon Used Damage/Casualties
M/T Rumford Zodiac Maritime Jan. 25 Explosive drone boats None reported
M/T Pacific Zircon Zodiac Maritime Jan. 26 Explosive drone boat Fire, damage
LPG tanker Affiliated w/ BP Jan. 26 Missile None reported

Retaliatory Strikes from Saudi/US Coalition

The brazen Houthi attacks elicited a swift military response from Saudi Arabia and its allies, including the United States. Late on January 26th, the US carried out an airstrike targeting Houthi coastal defense missile batteries in Amran province, north of the capital Sanaa. US Central Command stated the strike was ordered “in self-defense” to counter missile systems threatening US and allied forces in the region following the Houthis’ attacks on commercial shipping.

Meanwhile, the Saudi-led coalition unleashed a barrage of airstrikes across Houthi-held territory in Yemen, hitting targets in both Sanaa and the key port city of Hodeidah. Per Saudi state media, the bombing campaign was intended to “destroy legitimate military targets including Houthi ballistic missile batteries, drones, weapons depots, and military communication networks.”

Houthis Escalate Again, Target US and Allied Warships

Despite the retaliatory strikes, the Houthis continued their provocative military actions in the Red Sea. On January 27th, the rebels claimed another drone boat attack on a British-flagged LPG tanker transiting the Gulf of Aden into the critical Bab el-Mandeb Strait. The UK government later confirmed an explosion occurred near the vessel as it passed through the strait but stated the ship was undamaged.

In their most brazen act yet, the Houthis subsequently declared missile attacks targeting US and allied warships on January 28th-29th. The rebels reported firing missiles at the USS Lewis B. Puller expeditionary mobile base ship operating off Yemen’s west coast, as well as claiming strikes on unnamed French and Saudi vessels. US Central Command firmly rejected the Houthis’ assertion regarding the Puller, stating no US ships in the region were damaged. However, the claims nonetheless highlighted the possibility of further dangerous escalation and risk to vital shipping lanes.

Global Powers Urge Restraint amid Fragile Truce Talks

While the Biden administration stated it was coordinating closely with Gulf allies on potential further military action, global stakeholders have widely called for urgent de-escalation between the warring parties. Governments including China, Russia, India, and leading EU states pushed restraint and expressed deep concerns over threats to commercial shipping and regional stability.

The attacks and rhetoric also overshadowed tentative steps between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis on consolidating their months-long truce agreement. The two sides recently concluded successful prisoner swap talks but will face far greater challenges securing a lasting ceasefire and ultimate peace settlement. With Iran’s perceived backing, the Houthis appear intent on leverage military pressure on Saudi Arabia and its partners to extract maximal concessions in any future negotiations.

Background and Outlook

The latest Red Sea clashes mark a dangerous new phase in Yemen’s intractable 7-year civil war. The Iran-aligned Houthis took over the capital Sanaa in 2014, prompting Saudi Arabia to intervene the following year to try restoring the internationally recognized government. The conflict has killed hundreds of thousands directly or through starvation and disease while pushing Yemen to the brink of famine.

While pushing for truce talks, the Houthis may see value in asserting military pressure toward territorial gains and relief from the Saudi blockade strangling northern Yemen. However, their brazen attacks also risk fierce retaliation. With both sides heavily armed, the conflict retains potential to spiral into unprecedented wider regional war. Much depends on restraint from Iran and Saudi Arabia’s calculus on managing proxy forces while securing its oil exports and regional standing.

As the warring parties continue their delicate diplomatic dance, ordinary Yemenis face ever more desperate humanitarian circumstances and slim hopes for peace. The international community must redouble mediation efforts and use all leverage possible to prevent the dangerous conflict from engulfing vital global shipping lanes and energy supplies. Both sides must return to ceasefire talks in good faith, setting aside maximalist demands for the sake of Yemeni lives hanging perilously in the balance.

Subsequent Developments

  • January 30th updates here
  • January 31st updates here
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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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