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May 27, 2024

Houthi Missiles Target Commercial Ships as Tensions Boil Over in Red Sea

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Feb 4, 2024

Tensions between the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen and the US military have reached new heights this week, with several attempted missile strikes against commercial vessels transiting the Red Sea. The escalation comes after repeated Houthi threats to attack any ships belonging to the US or its allies.

Timeline of Recent Events

Date Event
January 26 Explosion reported near merchant vessel off Yemeni coast, cause unknown
January 29 Houthis claim missile attack on fuel tanker in Red Sea
January 31 Houthis vow to step up attacks on US and British navy ships
February 1 US warship USS Gravely shoots down inbound Houthi missile
February 1 US conducts retaliatory airstrikes against Houthi missile launch sites

The current crisis traces back to January 26th, when an explosion occurred near a merchant ship off the coast of war-torn Yemen. The cause of the blast remains unknown.

Just days later on January 29th, the Iran-backed Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for firing a missile at a fuel tanker in the Red Sea. The attack was likely meant as retaliation for recent Israeli airstrikes on targets in Syria. While Israel has not officially commented, the Houthis are closely aligned with Israel’s arch-nemesis Iran.

Houthi Threats Target US and British Navy

On January 31st, a Houthi military spokesman issues a threatening statement that rebels would step up attacks on ships belonging to the US and Britain, as well as their allies. The alarming vows raised concerns that ongoing efforts to reach a ceasefire and political settlement in Yemen could be in jeopardy.

“We warn all ships flying the American and British flags to not approach Yemeni waters during the coming period,” the Houthi statement read, accusing the US and Britain of “piracy and blockade” by inspecting ships bound for rebel-held ports.

The stern warning comes after both the US and Britain recently boarded vessels off Yemen to search for smuggled weapons possibly linked to Iran. The Houthis denounced the seizures of “telecommunications equipment” as acts of piracy.

In the days following the bellicose Houthi statement, tensions continued ratcheting upwards after an Iranian drone strike killed three American soldiers at a base in Jordan. The attack was likely carried out by one of Iran’s regional proxies, like Islamic Resistance in Iraq. President Biden has warned that Iran would face consequences for killing US troops.

Missiles Fired at Commercial Tankers in Red Sea

On February 1st, the situation abruptly escalated when Houthi forces fired missiles at two separate commercial tankers transiting the Red Sea – the Marlin Luanda chemical tanker, and an unidentified merchant vessel.

The Marshall Islands-flagged Marlin Luanda, operated by commodities giant Trafigura, suffered an explosion and fire after being struck by a missile off the Yemeni port of Hodeida. Thankfully the blaze was contained and extinguished by the crew without serious injury or pollution.

Fire aboard chemical tanker Marlin Luanda
Fire aboard chemical tanker Marlin Luanda after Houthi missile impact (credit: social media)

In a near-simultaneous attack, Houthi forces also targeted an unnamed US-flagged merchant vessel transiting the Red Sea, forcing the US Navy destroyer USS Gravely to intercept the inbound missile with defensive systems. The Houthi missile reportedly came within 1 nautical mile of USS Gravely before being shot down.

It was close enough that debris from the missile landed on board the ship,” a US defense official revealed. Thankfully none of the debris caused any damage or injuries to sailors.

The massive escalation sparked fears that one of the Middle East’s most important maritime trade choke points could be threatened. Over 10% of global trade flows through the Red Sea each year, including critical oil exports from Gulf states.

Retaliatory Airstrikes Target Houthi Missile Sites

In response to the unprecedented Houthi attacks on commercial tankers, US Central Command conducted retaliatory airstrikes later the same day targeting Houthi coastal defense missile batteries. The precision strikes were aimed at “degrading the Houthis’ ability to target ships from ashore.”

“The Houthis’ attempt to attack a merchant vessel navigating off the coast of Yemen in international waters is unacceptable,” Central Command declared.

Yemeni officials reported that at least 10 rebels were killed in the American counterattack. But the Houthis remained defiant, warning they would continue targeting any ships belonging to the US or its allies detected near Yemen.

Houthi retaliation for the US airstrikes could be swift. Later today, Houthi forces launched additional missiles towards Yemen’s contested Marib province, as bloody fighting for control of the gas-rich region threatens to intensify further. The tit-for-tat cycle risks touching off an uncontrolled escalation spiral.

Houthi missile launch:watermark(https://silver.si.edu/thumbnailer/watermark.svg,25,25)/https://tf-cmsv2-smithsonianmag-media.s3.amazonaws.com/filer/1d/30/1d305b5f-7344-4f98-a3f8-ecf0a32cc94e/gettyimages-956250540.jpg)
Houthi rebel forces have repeatedly fired missiles towards targets in Saudi Arabia and vessels transiting the Red Sea (Jihadh Najjar/AFP/Getty Images)

What Comes Next?

Today’s alarming events are the culmination of months of gradually rising tensions between the Houthis and the US military centered around maritime security in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

The chain reaction risks spiraling into open conflict, imperiling the tenuous relief of suffering for millions of Yemenis. Most concerning is if the tensions boil over into overt fighting between US and Iranian forces across the region.

In an effort to avoid uncontrolled escalation, the US and its allies could step up weapons searches and maritime security patrols around Yemen’s coastline. But such muscle-flexing runs the risk of provoking even more brazen Houthi attacks.

Yemen’s bloody civil war has raged for over 8 years, creating one of the worst humanitarian disasters globally. The only lasting solution lies in ceasefire talks and a shared political process between warring sides. But with missiles now targeting commercial ships in one of the world’s busiest trade choke points, the time left for diplomacy appears to be running out.

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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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