British and US forces appear to be gearing up to strike an Iranian-backed militant group in Yemen after the Houthi rebels defied a warning to stop attacking ships in the Red Sea.
Grant Shapps, the UK defence secretary, accused Iran of meddling and declared “enough is enough” in an escalating crisis that could ignite a wider conflict across the Middle East.
Concerns are also growing about the global economic impact of the disruption to shipping through the vital Red Sea, with vessels choosing to divert, pushing up the cost of trade and potentially causing inflation to rise.
A Royal Navy warship shot down seven drones overnight on Tuesday in an operation with US naval vessels and jets to repel the largest Houthi drone and missile attack to date.
It came despite a warning by the United States, the UK and other partners issued a week ago to the group to end the targeting of commercial shipping or “bear the responsibility of the consequences”.
‘Watch this space’
Asked whether military action against Houthi targets was now inevitable, Mr Shapps told reporters on Wednesday: “I can’t go into details but I can say that the joint statement that we issued set out a very clear path that, if this doesn’t stop, then action will be taken, so I am afraid the simplest thing is to say: watch this space.”
He also had unusually stern words for Iran, which he accused of arming the Houthis and of providing surveillance support to identify shipping targets.
“We saw this huge attack last night by the Houthi militants but be in no doubt at all Iran is guiding what is happening there in the Red Sea,” the defence secretary said.
“Providing them not just with equipment to carry out those attacks but also often with the eyes and ears to allow those attacks to happen.
“Enough is enough as far as we are concerned.”
As for whether this meant the UK and its allies were prepared to attack Iran directly, Mr Shapps said: “Our concern is directly with where these attacks are coming from – so that is the Houthis who are, as you know, stationed in Yemen and carrying out attacks from Yemen itself so we have called on the Houthis to stop, to cease and desist. That must now happen.”
The Houthis started attacking shipping linked to Israel in the Red Sea in November in protest at Israel’s war in Gaza, which was launched after Hamas – another militant group backed by Iran – carried out a devastating terrorist attack against Israeli targets on 7 October.
A Houthi spokesperson on Wednesday claimed responsibility for the latest major missile and drone strike, claiming they had targeted a US warship that had been operating in support of Israel.
Brigadier General Yahya Saree signalled the militants were not going to stop their mission, saying it would continue “until the aggression stops and the siege on our steadfast brothers in the Gaza Strip ends”.
‘There will be consequences’
Anthony Blinken, the US secretary of state who is on a visit to the region, repeated the message to the Houthis that was made in the 3 January joint statement, saying 20 countries have made “clear that if these attacks continue as they did yesterday, there will be consequences”.
US and British forces on Tuesday night shot down 18 one-way attack drones – designed to explode upon impact – fired by Houthi militias in Yemen along with two anti-ship cruise missiles and one anti-ship ballistic missile.
The attack started at about 9.15pm local time, according to a statement by the US military describing it as a “complex attack”.
The US said this was the 26th Houthi attack on commercial shipping since 19 November.
Mr Shapps, in a statement released on social media, detailed the UK involvement: “Overnight, HMS Diamond, along with US warships, successfully repelled the largest attack from the Iranian-backed Houthis in the Red Sea to date.
“Deploying Sea Viper missiles and guns, Diamond destroyed multiple attack drones heading for her and commercial shipping in the area, with no injuries or damage sustained to Diamond or her crew.
“The UK alongside allies have previously made clear that these illegal attacks are completely unacceptable and if continued the Houthis will bear the consequences.
“We will take the action needed to protect innocent lives and the global economy.”
A US-led coalition of nations has been patrolling the Red Sea to try and prevent the attacks.
Ships saw approaching missiles and drones
The United Kingdom Marine Trade Operations (UKMTO), which monitors shipping attacks in the region, said it was aware of an attack off the Yemeni port of Hodeida on Tuesday.
Private intelligence firm Ambrey said ships described over the radio seeing missiles and drones, with US-allied warships in the area urging “vessels to proceed at maximum speed”.
The attack took place ahead of a planned United Nations Security Council vote on Wednesday to potentially condemn and demand an immediate halt to the rebel attacks on merchant and commercial vessels.