US-led coalition of 10 nations to counter Houthi attacks on vessels in Red Sea

US defense secretary Lloyd Austin announces Operation Prosperity Guardian, in cooperation with UK, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles and Spain

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin makes a joint statement with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in Tel Aviv, December 18, 2023. (Maya Alleruzzo/AP)
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin makes a joint statement with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in Tel Aviv, December 18, 2023. (Maya Alleruzzo/AP)

MANAMA, Bahrain — The United States on Monday announced a 10-nation coalition to quell Houthi missile and drone attacks on ships transiting the Red Sea, with Britain, France, Bahrain and Italy among countries joining the “multinational security initiative.”

“Countries that seek to uphold the foundational principle of freedom of navigation must come together to tackle the challenge posed by this non-state actor,” US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement late-light Monday.

Iran-backed Houthi rebels have escalated attacks on tankers, cargo ships and other vessels in the Red Sea, imperiling a transit route that carries up to 12 percent of global trade

“This is an international challenge that demands collective action,” Austin said in statement released just after midnight in Bahrain. “Therefore today I am announcing the establishment of Operation Prosperity Guardian, an important new multinational security initiative.”

The United Kingdom, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles and Spain will join the US in the new mission, Austin announced. Some of the countries will conduct joint patrols while others provide intelligence support in the southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

Several other countries have also agreed to be involved in the operation but prefer not to be publicly named, a defense official said on the condition of anonymity to discuss additional details of the new mission that have not been publicly announced.

This photo provided by the French Navy shows the frigate Languedoc in the Strait of Hormuz, between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, Friday, May 28, 2021. (Marine Nationale via AP)

The mission will be coordinated by the already existing Combined Task Force 153, which was set up in April 2022 to improve maritime security in the Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb and the Gulf of Aden. There have been 39 member nations in CTF 153, but officials were working to determine which of them would participate in this latest effort.

Separately, the United States has also called on the United Nations Security Council to take action against the attacks.

In a letter to council members obtained Monday by The Associated Press, US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Houthi attacks targeting commercial vessels legally transiting the international waterways continue to threaten “navigational rights and freedoms, international maritime security, and international commerce.”

The 15 council members discussed the Houthi threat behind closed doors Monday but took no immediate action

The Houthis said earlier Monday 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.

The attacks on the Norwegian-owned Swan Atlantic and another ship identified by the Houthis as the MSC Clara are the latest in a flurry of maritime incidents that are disrupting global trade in an attempt to pressure Israel over its war against Hamas, following the Palestinian terror group’s murderous attack on October 7 when thousands of terrorists massacred 1,200 people in southern Israel, mostly civilians slaughtered amid brutal atrocities, and took 240 hostages.

The armed group that controls much of northern Yemen has declared itself part of the “axis of resistance” of Iran-affiliated groups and says its attack campaign is aimed at ending the war in Gaza. The Houthis have also fired several cruise missiles, drones, and ballistic missiles at Israel since October 7.

In a statement, the Houthis said they had carried out a “military operation against two ships linked to the Zionist entity” using naval drones.

This photo released by the Houthi Media Center shows Houthi forces boarding the cargo ship Galaxy Leader on Sunday, November 19, 2023. (Houthi Media Center via AP)

They vowed to “continue to prevent all ships heading to Israeli ports… from navigating in the Arab and Red Seas” until more food and medicine is allowed into Gaza.

But the Swan Atlantic’s owner, Norway’s Inventor Chemical Tankers, said in a statement the ship was carrying biofuel feedstock from France to Reunion Island.

It said the vessel has “no Israeli link” and was managed by a Singaporean firm, adding that the Indian crew were unharmed and the vessel sustained limited damage.

Three US warships — the USS Carney, the USS Stethem and the USS Mason, all Navy destroyers — have been moving through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait daily to help deter and respond to attacks from the Houthis.

Illustrative: This handout picture courtesy of the US Navy taken on October 19, 2023, shows the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Carney (DDG 64) defeating a combination of Houthi missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles in the Red Sea. (Aaron Lau / US NAVY / AFP)

Monday’s attack took place as Austin visited Israel before his stop in Bahrain, home base of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

“In the Red Sea, we’re leading a multinational maritime taskforce to uphold the bedrock principle of freedom of navigation. Iran’s support for Houthi attacks on commercial vessels must stop,” Austin said at a news conference.

The group’s attacks on shipping are “reckless, dangerous and they violate international law,” Austin said earlier while in Israel at a press conference alongside Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

The move to set up the expanded operation came after three commercial vessels were struck by missiles fired by Iranian-back Houthis in Yemen on December 3. Those attacks were part of an escalating campaign of violence that also included armed and other drones launched in the direction of US warships.

On Saturday, a US destroyer shot down 14 drones in the Red Sea launched from rebel-controlled areas of Yemen, the US military said. Britain said one of its destroyers had also brought down a suspected attack drone in the area

To date the US has not struck back at the Iranian-back Houthis operating in Yemen or targeted any of the militants’ weapons or other sites. On Monday, Austin did not answer a question as to why the Pentagon had not conducted a counterstrike.

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