EU launches naval mission to secure Red Sea from Houthi attacks

One-year mandate aims to protect civilian shipping routes without carrying out strikes on Yemeni soil; no casualties reported in most recent missile attacks on cargo vessels

A Houthi forces helicopter approaching the cargo ship Galaxy Leader on November 19, 2023, in the Red Sea. (Houthi Media Center via AP, File)
A Houthi forces helicopter approaching the cargo ship Galaxy Leader on November 19, 2023, in the Red Sea. (Houthi Media Center via AP, File)

The European Union formally launched a naval mission on Monday to protect Red Sea shipping from Yemen’s Houthi rebels, as cargo vessels continued to come under fire  in the region.

The Iran-backed Houthis, who control much of war-torn Yemen, have been harassing the vital shipping lane since November in a campaign they say is in solidarity with Palestinians, during Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, sparked by the terror group’s devastating October 7 attack.

The EU aims to have the mission — called Aspides, Greek for “shield” — up and running in a “few weeks” with at least four vessels, an official said on Friday, ahead of Monday’s official launch.

“Europe will ensure freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, working alongside our international partners,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

The United States is already spearheading its own naval coalition in the area and has conducted retaliatory strikes on Houthi targets in Yemen, as has Britain.

The dozens of Houthi attacks have roiled shipping in the Red Sea, forcing some companies to take alternative routes including a two-week detour around the tip of southern Africa.

The US-owned ship Genco Picardy, which came under attack from a bomb-carrying drone launched by Yemen’s Houthi rebels in the Gulf of Aden, January 18, 2024. (Indian Navy via AP, File)

In the latest incident, a Greek-flagged, US-owned cargo ship was attacked twice in two hours in the Gulf of Aden, which adjoins the Red Sea, maritime security firm Ambrey said.

The bulk carrier reported a “missile attack” before another projectile hit the water just meters (yards) from the ship, Ambrey said.

The ship’s master reported “evidence of shrapnel and damage to paintwork” in the second incident, the Royal Navy’s UK Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) said.

Earlier, the Houthis claimed an attack on a British ship in the Gulf of Aden, after Ambrey reported an attack on a UK-registered cargo ship in the Bab al-Mandeb Strait linking the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea.

The UKMTO reported an incident 35 nautical miles (65 kilometers) south of Mokha on Yemen’s Red Sea coast, without naming the ship. The location would be towards the Bab al-Mandeb Strait.

Citing “military authorities,” UKMTO said the crew had safely “abandoned the vessel,” which was left at anchor with military authorities at the site and providing assistance.

Illustrative: A Maersk container ship at Aqaba, Jordan, on the Red Sea on October 3, 2019. (eugenesergeev/ iStock by Getty Images)

Houthi Brig. Gen. Yahya Saree issued a statement claiming the attack, saying the vessel later sunk.

There was no independent confirmation the vessel sank.

“The ship suffered catastrophic damages and came to a complete halt,” Saree said. “During the operation, we made sure that the ship’s crew exited safely.”

The private security firm Ambrey reported the British-registered, Lebanese-operated cargo ship had been on its way to Bulgaria after leaving Khorfakkan in the United Arab Emirates.

Ship-tracking data from analyzed by The Associated Press identified the vessel targeted as the Rubymar. Its Beirut-based manager could not be reached for comment.

The Houthis later also identified the ship as the Rubymar, as did the US military’s Central Command.

Central Command said the attack involved two anti-ship ballistic missiles, which saw one struck the Rubymar.

Ambrey described the ship as being partially laden with cargo, but it was not immediately clear what it had been carrying. The ship had turned off its Automatic Identification System tracker while in the Persian Gulf early this month.

Meanwhile, the US military’s Central Command reported it carried out five airstrikes targeting Houthi military equipment. Those strikes targeted mobile anti-ship cruise missiles, an explosive-carrying drone boat and an “unmanned underwater vessel,” Central Command said.

“This is the first observed Houthi employment of a UUV since attacks began in October 23,” Central Command said.

‘Impact on the entire world’

As the attacks continued, Qatar’s energy minister called for a ceasefire in Gaza to end the insecurity in the Red Sea, which has disrupted oil deliveries along with other trade.

Saad al-Kaabi, who is also the chief executive of state-owned QatarEnergy, said the “root of the problem” in the Red Sea, where Iran-backed Houthi rebels have targeted commercial vessels, “is the Israeli invasion of Gaza.”

“Hopefully there is a ceasefire soon that will stop that so that the economic impact on the entire world stops,” he said at a ground-breaking ceremony for a new petrochemicals plant on Qatar’s northeast coast.

War erupted in Gaza on October 7 when the Palestinian terror group Hamas led a devastating cross-border attack from the Gaza Strip that killed 1,200 people in Israel, mostly civilians. Terrorists also abducted 253 people of all ages, who were taken as hostages to Gaza.

Israel responded to the attack with a military offensive to destroy Hamas, remove it from power in Gaza, and free the hostages, over half of whom remain captive.

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi said on Monday that revenues in the Suez Canal, which links the Red Sea with the Mediterranean, had fallen “40 to 50 percent” so far this year.

The amphibious assault ship USS Bataan transits through the Suez Canal, Egypt, on August, 6, 2023. (Moises Sandoval/US Department of Defense/AFP)

The canal, which brought in $8.6 billion in the 2022-23 fiscal year, is a vital source of foreign currency for Cairo, which is suffering from a severe financial crisis.

Italian top diplomat Antonio Tajani confirmed the EU mission’s launch during a meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels, calling it “an important step towards common European defense.”

The overall commander of the EU mission will be Greek, while the lead officer in operational control at sea will be Italian. So far France, Germany, Italy and Belgium have said they plan to contribute ships.

The EU says the mission’s mandate — set initially for one year — is limited to protecting civilian shipping in the Red Sea and that no attacks will be carried out “on Yemeni soil.”

An EU official said there would be “continuous military to military contact” to coordinate actions with the United States and other forces in the region.

The EU’s 27 countries agreed on the Red Sea mission in a matter of weeks as concerns mount that the Houthi attacks could damage their economies and push up inflation.

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