Houthi leader threatens to attack US warships if Washington attacks Yemen

© Reuters. Newly recruited fighters who have joined Houthi military forces to be deployed to fight in support of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip march during a parade in Sanaa, Yemen December 2, 2023. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah/File Photo

DUBAI (Reuters) – Yemen’s Houthi leader warned on Wednesday that he would attack U.S. warships if Iran-backed militias were targeted by Washington, which this week set up a multinational force to repel Houthi attacks on merchant vessels in the Red Sea.

The Houthis, who control vast swathes of territory in Yemen after years of war, have fired drones and missiles at international vessels sailing through the Red Sea since last month in what they say is a response to Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip.

As part of a US-led security initiative, Washington and 10 others, mostly NATO nations, will patrol the Red Sea to deter and respond to future Houthi attacks that have so far led to the world’s main shipping lanes being diverted around Africa.

“We will not stand idly by if the Americans are tempted to escalate further and commit follies by targeting or waging war against our country,” Abdel-Malek al-Houthi said.

“Any US targeting of our country will be our target and we will make US warships, interests and navigation a target for our missiles, drones and military operations,” he said in a televised address.

The Red Sea crisis grew out of the war between Israel and the ruling Palestinian Islamist group Hamas in Gaza, the latest Middle East conflict to pit the US and its allies against regional power Iran and its proxy Arab militias.

The war began on October 7, when Hamas fighters invaded southern Israel across the Gaza border, where Israeli officials said the militants killed about 1,200 mostly civilian Israelis and foreigners.

Israel’s retaliatory bombing and invasion of Gaza, which Israeli officials say is aimed at wiping out Hamas, has killed nearly 20,000 Palestinians in the densely populated coastal enclave, according to health officials.

Iranian proxies including the Houthis and Lebanon’s Hezbollah have fired rockets at Israel since the beginning of the conflict. Meanwhile, the Houthis have stepped up their attacks in the Red Sea, threatening to target all ships bound for Israel and warning shipping companies against dealing with Israeli ports.

The attacks have disrupted a key trade route that connects Europe and North America to Asia via the Suez Canal and caused container shipping costs to soar as companies seek to ship their goods via alternative, often longer, routes.

Dubbed “Operation Prosperity Guardian”, Britain, Bahrain, Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles and Spain will conduct joint patrols with the US in the southern Red Sea and the adjacent Gulf of Aden.

“As long as the Americans want to enter a direct war with us, they should know that we are not the ones who fear them and that they are facing the whole nation,” al-Houthi said.

He warned Americans against sending troops to Yemen, saying they would “face something more severe than what they faced in Afghanistan and what they suffered in Vietnam.”