The US condemned “unprecedented” attacks by Yemeni rebels on Red Sea shipping as the Huthis on Tuesday pledged to continue military operations despite the announcement of a new maritime protection force.
The flurry of drone and missile attacks by the rebels, the latest of which targeted two vessels on Monday, threaten to upend global trade flows, with major shipping firms halting traffic through the Bab al-Mandeb strait.
Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin warned on Tuesday that the attacks “threaten” the free flow of commerce, a day after he announced a multinational task force to quell Huthi missile and drone attacks.
Austin spoke during a virtual meeting with representatives of 43 countries, as well as the EU and Nato, to discuss the increased threat to maritime security in the Red Sea, the statement said.
The Pentagon chief “urged participants to join US-led and other international initiatives... to restore security in the Red Sea to deter future Huthi aggression,” the statement added.
The task force he announced on Monday includes Britain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Spain as well as the US. It drew Huthi ire, with rebels pledging to continue attacks.
Yemen’s Iran-backed Huthi rebels said earlier they had attacked two “Israeli-linked” vessels in the Red Sea in solidarity with Gaza, as more companies halt transit through the troubled but vital waterway.
“Even if America succeeds in mobilising the entire world, our military operations will not stop ... no matter the sacrifices it costs us,” senior Huthi official Mohammed al-Bukhaiti said.
Rebel spokesperson Mohammed Abdul Salam said the “US-formed coalition aims to protect Israel and militarise the sea,” adding: “Whoever seeks to expand the conflict must bear the consequences of those actions.”
Yemen’s Huthi rebels have launched more than 100 drone and missile attacks, targeting 10 merchant vessels involving more than 35 different countries, according to the Pentagon.
In November, they seized the Galaxy Leader merchant vessel, taking its 25-member crew hostage. Both the vessel and crew remain in Yemen.
On Monday, the rebels claimed attacks on two vessels in the vital shipping lane between Asia and Europe, including the Norwegian-owned Swan Atlantic.
The US military’s Central Command said the Swan Atlantic “was attacked by a one-way attack drone and an anti-ship ballistic missile launched from Huthi-controlled areas in Yemen”.
It said the guided missile destroyer USS Carney “responded to assess damage”.
At approximately the same time, “the bulk cargo ship MV Clara reported an explosion in the water near their location,” Centcom said.
No casualties were reported in either attack, it added.
Insurance costs have soared, prompting major shipping firms to reroute their vessels around the southern tip of Africa, despite the higher fuel costs of the much longer voyage.
Denmark’s AP Moller-Maersk –which accounts for 15% of global container freight – is among the shipping giants that have suspended Red Sea voyages until further notice.
In a statement on Tuesday, it said “all vessels previously paused and due to sail through the region will now be rerouted around Africa via the Cape of Good Hope.”
As of Monday, “Maersk had approximately 20 vessels that had paused transits, out of which half were waiting”. According to analysts, the maritime task force announced by Washington can do little to halt attacks by the Huthi rebels, who command an arsenal of ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and drones.
Torbjorn Soltvedt of the risk intelligence firm Verisk Maplecroft said the “threat to shipping is also further increased by the group’s ability to deploy anti-ship mines and execute co-ordinated operations using boats and helicopters.”
Meanwhile, one of the last remaining hospitals in the northern Gaza Strip stopped operating on Tuesday after being stormed by the Israeli army, its director said. Fadel Naim said that Israeli troops had attacked the Al-Ahli hospital and arrested doctors, medical staff and patients, destroying part of the building’s grounds.
Israel’s attack has “put the hospital out of action”, he said. “We can’t receive any patients or injured.” At least four people wounded by Israeli fire on Monday died on Tuesday, he said.
Hospitals, protected under international humanitarian law, have repeatedly been hit by Israeli strikes in the Gaza Strip since the start of the war between Israel and Hamas on October 7.