US strikes Houthi cruise missiles ‘prepared to launch’ at ships in Red Sea

Amid continued attacks by Iran-backed rebels, aid groups in Yemen warn of rising shipping costs and delivery delays, threatening further deterioration in humanitarian conditions

Military vehicles parade during a pro-Palestinian rally in Yemen's Houthi-held capital Sanaa on February 7, 2024 amid the ongoing war in the Gaza Strip between Israel and the Palestinian terror group Hamas. (Mohammed Huwais/AFP)
Military vehicles parade during a pro-Palestinian rally in Yemen's Houthi-held capital Sanaa on February 7, 2024 amid the ongoing war in the Gaza Strip between Israel and the Palestinian terror group Hamas. (Mohammed Huwais/AFP)

WASHINGTON — The United States military confirmed Thursday its forces conducted multiple strikes against Houthi missile systems as the Yemen-based rebel group prepared to launch attacks that threatened US Navy and merchant ships.

Late Wednesday Sana’a time, US Central Command forces “conducted self-defense strikes against two Houthi mobile anti-ship cruise missiles prepared to launch against ships in the Red Sea,” CENTCOM said in a statement posted on social media platform X.

Later that night, CENTCOM forces “conducted a second strike against a Houthi mobile land attack cruise missile prepared to launch.”

CENTCOM said it identified the missiles in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen and determined they “presented an imminent threat to US Navy ships and merchant vessels in the region.”

The strikes “will protect freedom of navigation and make international waters safer and more secure for US Navy and merchant vessels,” it said.

On Wednesday, the Houthis’ news agency reported that the US and Britain had hit targets in Yemen’s Hodeida province.

The Iran-backed rebels, who control much of war-torn Yemen including the port of Hodeida, have been targeting shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

Fighter jet taking off from USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) during flight operations in response to increased Iranian-backed Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea, January 12, 2024. (Zachary Elmore/US Navy/AFP)

The Houthis began the attacks in November, saying they were hitting Israel-linked vessels in support of Palestinians in Gaza, which has been ravaged by the Israel-Hamas war.

US and British forces have responded with strikes against the Houthis, who have since declared American and British interests to be legitimate targets as well.

On Tuesday, the Houthi rebels said they had struck US and British ships in two attacks in the Red Sea, causing minor damage but no casualties.

The Red Sea attacks have raised insurance premiums for shipping companies, forcing many to avoid the Red Sea, a vital route that normally carries about 12 percent of global maritime trade

According to the International Monetary Fund, Red Sea traffic has already dropped by at least 30% this year as a result of the attacks.

Aid groups working in Yemen have warned of rising shipping costs and delivery delays due to the Houthi attacks, which threaten to aggravate one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

After nine years of conflict, more than half of Yemen’s population requires humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations, with severe funding shortages hampering the response.

A spate of attacks on commercial vessels by Yemen’s Houthis since November has further compounded the country’s woes, as shipping companies face higher costs as they detour around southern Africa to avoid the Red Sea.

People shop at a street market in Yemen’s third city of Taiz, on February 7, 2024. (Ahmad Al-Basha/AFP)

The World Food Program said it is already feeling the knock-on effects of the escalation, which has also seen US and UK strikes on Houthi military targets.

“As the security situation in the Red Sea continues to deteriorate, WFP is facing increased shipping costs as well as potential delivery delays,” the UN agency said in a report this week.

“The food security situation is expected to deteriorate over the coming months,” WFP said, adding that the war-torn country depends on imports for 90% of its food needs.

Many companies are opting for a lengthy detour around Africa, which adds considerable fuel and other costs that can trickle down to consumer goods.

WFP said it is facing higher shipping costs because of increased freight and insurance rates, and extra fuel costs, without specifying the route aid ships are taking.

The International Rescue Committee, another aid group working in Yemen, said it was “already seeing delays in shipments of lifesaving commodities, including pharmaceuticals, due to the military escalation.”

The organization is still delivering at full capacity because of its stockpiles of aid, said Anya Cowley, the IRC’s policy, advocacy and communications coordinator for Yemen.

But it is beginning to see “rising inflation, and increased costs of basic commodities in local markets such as food and fuel,” she told AFP.

“If the situation in the Red Sea escalates, the ability of humanitarian organizations like IRC to provide humanitarian assistance may be impacted,” Cowley added.

Members of the Yemeni Coast Guard affiliated with the Iran-backed Houthi group patrol the sea as demonstrators march through the Red Sea port city of Hodeida in solidarity with the people of Gaza on January 4, 2024. (AFP)

The Arabian Peninsula’s poorest country has been gripped by conflict since the Houthis overran the capital Sana’a in 2014, triggering a Saudi-led military intervention in support of the government the following year.

Hundreds of thousands have died in fighting or from indirect causes such as lack of food, in what the UN has called one of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophes.

“The humanitarian crisis is as bad as ever,” said Dalila Mahdawi of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Terror listing

After the United States last month said it was relisting the Houthis as a terrorist organization, Mahdawi said there were concerns the designation would further endanger the humanitarian response.

She said it was too early to tell how this would affect the supply of aid as the US has promised to minimize the impact on humanitarian groups.

“We have seen with previous designations like this that humanitarian exemptions are critical to allowing the continuation of the provision of aid, so we hope this will be agreed [to] in this situation as well,” Mahdawi, the ICRC’s head of communications for Yemen, told AFP.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Yemen is experiencing some of the highest malnutrition rates ever recorded, with more than 17 million facing food insecurity.

Nearly half of all children under five are suffering moderate to severe stunting, it said.

Child supporters of Yemen’s Houthi rebels carry weapons as they take part in a pro-Palestinian rally in Sana’a on February 8, 2024, amid the ongoing war in the Gaza Strip between Israel and the Palestinian terror group Hamas. (Mohammed Huwais/AFP)

Last week, OCHA launched an appeal for $4 billion in aid for Yemen this year following funding shortfalls that have forced several organizations to cut assistance.

In January, 26 aid groups working in Yemen issued a joint statement warning that the impact of the Red Sea escalation is already being felt by humanitarian groups.

“Disruption to trade is pushing up prices and causing delays in shipments of lifesaving goods,” said the groups including CARE, the Norwegian Refugee Council and Save the Children.

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