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Pentagon announces new international mission to counter Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea

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The Pentagon announced Tuesday the creation of a new international mission responsible for countering attacks by Houthi rebels in Yemen against commercial ships in the Red Sea.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced the creation of Operation Prosperity Guardian, “a significant new multinational security initiative under the Combined Maritime Forces umbrella and its Task Force 153, which focuses on security in the Red Sea.

The severity of the attacks, several of which damaged ships, led several shipping companies to order their ships to stay put and not enter the Bab el-Mandeb Strait until the security situation has been corrected. . US Central Command reported two more attacks on commercial ships on Monday. An attack drone and ballistic missile strike hit an oil tanker off the coast of Yemen around the same time a cargo ship reported the detonation of an explosive in the water nearby, the agency said. American army.

“This is an international challenge that requires collective action,” Austin said, issuing a statement Tuesday morning while in Bahrain. “Operation Prosperity Guardian brings together several countries, including the United Kingdom, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles and Spain, to jointly address security challenges in the southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, with the aim of ensuring freedom of navigation for all countries and strengthening regional security and prosperity. »

Austin added that the recent Houthi aggression “threatens the free flow of trade, endangers innocent seafarers and violates international law.”

The United States is still actively seeking member nations to join the mission and increase the number of navies present and participating.

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“The Red Sea is a waterway critical to freedom of navigation and a major commercial corridor that facilitates international trade,” the Austin statement said. “Countries seeking to uphold the fundamental principle of freedom of navigation must come together to meet the challenge posed by this non-state actor launching ballistic missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) at merchant ships of many countries legally transiting international waters.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks to members of an international maritime task force protecting commercial vessels in the Red Sea, at U.S. Navy Central Command headquarters in Manama, Bahrain, Tuesday December 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Tara Copp)

In the Middle East, Austin hosted a virtual conference on Red Sea maritime security, highlighting how the attacks “have already impacted the global economy and would continue to threaten commercial shipping if the international community does not respond.” “unite to solve the problem collectively.”

U.S. military officials informed attendees that the Houthis have carried out more than 100 one-way attacks with unmanned aerial systems and ballistic missiles, targeting 10 merchant ships involving more than 35 different countries. They pointed out that the Houthis took the merchant ship Galaxy Leader and its 25 international crew members hostage on November 19. The Pentagon said the crew remained “unjustly detained in Yemen.”

During the conference, participants discussed that the attacks constitute a blatant violation of international law and that the Houthis must cease their aggressive actions, Pentagon Press Secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryde said in a statement. communicated. Currently, 10 to 15 percent of global trade passes through the Red Sea, and international shipping companies must reroute through the Cape of Good Hope, adding weeks to the delivery of essential goods and materials, including oil and the gas.

Austin to Tel Aviv

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin delivers a joint statement with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, after their meeting on the Israeli military operation in Gaza, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Monday, December 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

There are about 400 commercial ships transiting through the southern Red Sea, an area roughly the size of Washington, D.C., to Boston at any one time, a senior military official told reporters traveling with Austin to the region . Under the new mission, military ships will not necessarily escort a specific vessel but will be positioned to provide umbrella protection to as many as possible at any given time, the official told the AP on condition of anonymity. .

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Mohammed Abdel-Salam, the Houthis’ chief negotiator and spokesman, defied the U.S.-created coalition on Tuesday, saying the Iran-backed rebels would continue targeting ships linked to Israel.

“The coalition formed by the United States aims to protect Israel and militarize the sea without any justification, and will not prevent Yemen from continuing its legitimate operations in support of Gaza,” he wrote on X , adding that the Houthi attacks “are not a spectacle.” by force nor a challenge to anyone.

“Anyone who seeks to expand the conflict must bear the consequences of their actions,” Abdel-Salam said.

Two US Navy destroyers – the USS Carney and the USS Mason – are currently transiting the Bab el-Mandeb Strait to help deter and respond to Houthi attacks. The decision to set up the expanded operation came after three commercial ships were hit by missiles fired by the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen on December 3.

US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield is separately imploring the UN Security Council to take action against Houthi attacks.

Austin shakes hands with Israeli Defense Minister

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, right, shakes hands with his U.S. counterpart, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Monday, Dec. 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

To date, the United States has not retaliated against the Houthis operating in Yemen or targeted the militants’ weapons or other sites. On Monday, Austin did not respond to a question about why the Pentagon had not carried out a counterattack.

A notably absent participant in Operation Prosperity Guardian is China, which has warships in the region, but those ships have not responded to previous calls for help from commercial ships, even though some of the attacked ships had ties with Hong Kong, the military official said. told the AP. Several other countries have also agreed to participate in the operation but prefer not to be named publicly, a defense official told the AP on condition of anonymity.

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The new maritime security mission will be coordinated by the existing Combined Task Force 153, established in April 2022 to improve maritime security in the Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb and the Gulf of Aden. While until now the task force has primarily provided a headquarters structure, the focus of the new mission is to provide ships and other assets to provide protection. CTF 153 had 39 member countries, but officials were working to determine which of them would participate.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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