US announces naval task force to respond to Houthi attacks in Red Sea

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced on Monday Operation Prosperity Guardian, which he said was in response to “reckless Houthi attacks” from Yemen in the Red Sea.

Countries joining the naval task force include the UK, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles and Spain.

“The recent escalation in reckless Houthi attacks originating from Yemen threatens the free flow of commerce, endangers innocent mariners, and violates international law,” Austin said in a statement, adding that the Red Sea is a critical waterway that has been essential to freedom of navigation and a major commercial corridor that facilitates international trade.

He said countries that sought to uphold freedom of navigation needed to come together to tackle the challenge by “this non-state actor.”

The countries mentioned above have pledged to “jointly address security challenges in the southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, with the goal of ensuring freedom of navigation for all countries and bolstering regional security and prosperity,” Austin said.

Washington had been in touch with at least 12 countries as part of efforts to develop a naval task force to secure the passage of commercial vessels in and around the Red Sea, a US defense official previously told Al Arabiya English.

US officials have said they were looking at ways to expand an existing task force, Combined Task Force 153, which currently has its base in Bahrain. CTF-153 currently has 39 member nations, but the US defense official said talks involving the 12 nations are centered on what they may be able to contribute to the current task of securing maritime navigation.

The Iran-backed Houthis have lobbed missiles and other projectiles at Israel since the fighting began following the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7. US warships have also come into close proximity to missiles and projectiles fired by Iran-backed groups in the Middle East.

The US military said the Houthis attacked the Motor Tanker STRINDA last week using an anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) while it was passing through the Bab al-Mandeb Strait in the Red Sea. The Houthis claimed the attack and said they targeted the tanker because it was going to deliver crude oil to Israel. But the Norwegian owners of the tank said it was headed to Italy and not planning to stop in Israel, according to Reuters. The USS Mason, which responded to a call from the tanker, headed to the scene but later left after no help was needed, according to a US defense official.

The US special envoy for Yemen traveled to the Gulf earlier this month, which the State Department said was threatening almost two years of progress to end the yearslong war in Yemen.

Tim Lenderking went to continue “intensive” US diplomacy and regional coordination to safeguard maritime security in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden amid the increase in Houthi and Iranian attacks, the State Department said.

The US military said it had every reason to believe four attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea earlier this month were “fully enabled” by Iran despite being launched by Yemen’s Houthis, adding that the US would consider “all appropriate responses.”

On Thursday, Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin discussed the Houthi threats to freedom of navigation in the Red Sea with regional officials.

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