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RAF Typhoon FGR4 taking off from RAF Akrotiri to conduct strikes against military targets in Yemen UK Ministry of Defence/PA Images
Middle East

Explainer: Why did the US and UK just launch airstrikes in Yemen?

Tensions have been rising after Iranian-backed Houthi rebels began striking at ships passing through the Red Sea in recent weeks.

LAST NIGHT, US and British forces bombed more than a dozen sites used by the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen in a massive retaliatory strike using warship-launched Tomahawk missiles and fighter jets.

This development comes as tensions have been rising after Iranian-backed Houthi rebels began striking at ships passing through the Red Sea in recent weeks.

The Islamist group claims it began striking a narrow strip of sea between Yemen and east Africa, which is a key international trade route, in a bid to end Israel’s air and ground offensive against Hamas.

The overnight strikes on Yemen are the most significant military response against the Houthis’ campaign to date. 

The Houthis have close ties with Iran, which has been involved in conflict with Saudi Arabia, which shares a border with Yemen, over regional influence. 

Here’s what you need to know. 

Who are the Houthis? 

The Shia militant group emerged in the 1990s and its supporters mainly come from the ranks of Zaidi Shia Muslims and the Houthi tribe.

It claimed former president Ali Abudllah Saleh had grown too close to Saudi Arabia and Israel, and tensions between them grew for several years.

The death of the group’s founder, Hussein al Houthi, at the hands of the Yemeni military led to the Houthi insurgency from 2004.

The group later participated in the 2011 Yemeni revolution.

The rebels rose to prominence after capturing Yemen’s capital Sana’a in 2014, sparking a civil war which is estimated to have killed almost 400,000 people.

They captured more territory after aligning with Mr Saleh in 2015 and now control much of western Yemen down to the Bab al Mandeb Strait, a 16-mile stretch of water which marks the entrance to the Red Sea.

The group’s takeover of the capital prompted Saudi Arabia to intervene in a bid to restore the internationally recognised government, which has a Sunni majority.

A Saudi and UAE bombing campaign against Houthi targets was launched in 2015 and drew criticism over civilian deaths, leading to calls for the UK to cease arms exports to Saudi Arabia.

sanaa-sanaa-yemen-11th-jan-2024-newly-recruited-houthi-fighters-hold-up-a-weapons-and-chanting-slogans-in-a-ceremony-at-the-end-of-their-training-in-sanaa-yemen-the-head-of-yemens-houthi-moveme Newly recruited Houthi fighters hold up a weapons and chanting slogans in a ceremony at the end of their training in Sanaa, Yemen Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

What does the group have to do with Iran and the conflict in Gaza?

The Shia militant group is allied to Iran, as are Hamas and Hezbollah, and seeks to reduce western influence in the Middle East.

Its slogan includes the words “death to America”, “death to Israel” and “a curse upon the Jews”.

Tehran has been accused of providing arms, training and financial support to the Houthis. 

The Houthi rebels say they are acting in solidarity with Palestinians in response to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza after the 7 October attack, and have launched a series of drones and missiles towards Israel.

Israel has also been facing cross-border fire along its northern frontier from Iran-backed militants in Syria and Lebanon – particularly the Hamas-aligned Hezbollah – and has responded with strikes of its own in both countries.

Why have the Houthis been targeting ships in the Red Sea?

As noted above, the Houthis claim to have begun striking an area of the Red Sea between Yemen and east Africa, which is a key international trade route, in a bid to end Israel’s air and ground offensive against Hamas.

Since the eruption of the conflict in Gaza sparked by Hamas’s unprecedented attack on Israel on 7 October, the Houthis have carried out a growing number of attacks on the trade route. 

On Tuesday, the Houthis launched what London called their most significant attack yet, with US and British forces shooting down 18 drones and three missiles.

The final straw for the Western allies appeared to come early yesterday when the US military said the Houthis fired an anti-ship ballistic missile into a shipping lane in the Gulf of Aden.

It was the 27th attack on international shipping in the Red Sea since 19 November, the US military said.

The intensifying attacks have caused shipping companies to divert around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, sparking fears of a shock to the global economy.

Were the Houthis warned that that a retaliation might occur? 

The United States and its allies had issued a series of increasingly stern warnings to the Houthis to stop the shipping attacks, although Washington has been wary of inflaming regional tensions.

Washington set up an international coalition in December – dubbed Operation Prosperity Guardian – to protect maritime traffic in the area, through which 12% of world trade flows.

Twelve nations led by the United States warned the Houthis on 3 January of “consequences” unless they immediately stopped attacks on commercial vessels.

What happened last night? 

Last night, heavy US and British air strikes pounded targets in rebel-held Yemen.

The strikes targeted an airbase, airports and a military camp, the Houthi rebels’ Al-Masirah TV station said, with AFP correspondents and witnesses also reporting they could hear bombardments. 

The strikes involved fighter jets and Tomahawk missiles, the US Air Forces Central Command said in a statement. Sixty targets at 16 Houthi locations were hit by more than 100 precision-guided munitions, it said.

“Today, at my direction, US military forces – together with the United Kingdom and with support from Australia, Bahrain, Canada, and the Netherlands – successfully conducted strikes against a number of targets in Yemen used by Houthi rebels to endanger freedom of navigation in one of the world’s most vital waterways,” US President Joe Biden said in a statement.

Unverified images on social media, some of them purportedly of Al-Dailami airbase north of Sanaa, showed explosions lighting up the sky as loud bangs and the roar of planes sounded.

Biden called the strikes a “direct response” to the “unprecedented” attacks by the Houthis, “including the use of anti-ship ballistic missiles for the first time in history”.

“These attacks have endangered US personnel, civilian mariners, and our partners, jeopardised trade, and threatened freedom of navigation,” he said.

Blaming the Houthis for ignoring “repeated warnings”, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said in a statement the strikes were “necessary and proportionate”.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said the strikes “targeted sites associated with the Houthis’ unmanned aerial vehicle, ballistic and cruise missile, and coastal radar and air surveillance capabilities”.

How have the Houthis reacted to the strikes? 

The US and Britain “will have to prepare to pay a heavy price and bear all the dire consequences of this blatant aggression”, Houthi Deputy Foreign Minister Hussein Al-Ezzi has said. 

The Houthis said there was “no justification” for the air strikes and warned that attacks on Israel-linked shipping would continue.

“We affirm that there is absolutely no justification for this aggression against Yemen, as there was no threat to international navigation in the Red and Arabian Seas, and the targeting was and will continue to affect Israeli ships or those heading to the ports of occupied Palestine,” Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam posted on X, formerly Twitter.

How have other nations responded? 

A joint statement by the United States, Britain, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand and South Korea said the “aim remains to de-escalate tensions and restore stability in the Red Sea”.

“But let our message be clear: we will not hesitate to defend lives and protect the free flow of commerce in one of the world’s most critical waterways in the face of continued threats,” it said.

Yemen’s neighbour Saudi Arabia, which is trying to end its involvement in a nine-year war with the Houthis, urged against escalation.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is following with great concern the military operations,” a foreign ministry statement said, calling for “self-restraint and avoiding escalation”.

Iran has condemned the strikes on Yemen,  saying they were an “arbitrary action” and a “violation” of international law.

Russia has also condemned strikes by the US and Britain as an “escalation” with “destructive objectives”.

China has called for all sides to prevent the Yemen conflict from expanding.

“China is concerned about the escalation of tensions in the Red Sea,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said, adding: “We urge the relevant parties to keep calm and exercise restraint, to prevent the conflict from expanding.”

Includes reporting by Press Association and © AFP 2024

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