New Delhi: A boat loaded with explosives by the Houthi rebels of Yemen blew up in the Red Sea on Thursday, but did not harm any ships or people, according to the U.S. Navy, news agency Reuters reported. The attack was the latest in a series of assaults by the Houthis on commercial vessels, despite growing international pressure to stop. The explosion occurred a day after 12 countries, including the U.S., Britain and Japan, issued a joint statement warning the Houthis of possible “consequences” if they do not cease their attacks, which one U.S. official said on Wednesday was a final notice.
The Houthis, who are backed by Iran and control much of Yemen, have been launching drones and missiles at ships since Nov. 19, claiming to protest against Israel’s military actions in Gaza. The Houthi attacks have disrupted international shipping, forcing some companies to avoid the Red Sea and take the longer and more expensive route around Africa.
U.S. Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, who commands U.S. Naval forces in the Middle East, told reporters on Thursday that the Houthi boat bomb traveled about 50 miles (80 km) into the Red Sea and then exploded in busy shipping lanes. “It came within a couple of miles of ships operating in the area – merchant ships and U.S. Navy ships – and we all watched as it exploded,” Cooper said, adding that the intended target of the attack was unclear.
Cooper said the Houthis have now carried out 25 attacks on merchant vessels sailing through the southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden and said “there are no signs that their irresponsible behavior is abating.” The Houthi attacks have also increased the pressure on President Joe Biden to take military action, something his administration has been hesitant to do for fear of escalating the already high regional tensions.
Retired Marine general Frank McKenzie, who led U.S. forces in the Middle East until 2022, said the Biden administration’s response to the attacks in the Red Sea and on U.S. troops at bases in Iraq and Syria has been too “tentative” and “unfocused.” “To reset deterrence, we must apply violence that Tehran understands,” McKenzie wrote in an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday.
The U.S. and other countries launched Operation Prosperity Guardian last month to protect civilian vessels, which Cooper said now involved 22 countries. Cooper said U.S. warships and their partners have shot down two cruise missiles, six anti-ship ballistic missiles and 11 drones so far. On Sunday, U.S. warships sank three Houthi speed boats that tried to hijack a commercial vessel.
A senior Biden administration official said on Wednesday “if that happened again, we would probably do the exact same thing.” The official, who spoke anonymously, said the 12-nation statement to the Houthis was very clear. “I would not anticipate another warning,” the official said.
At the U.N., a U.S. envoy told the Security Council that the U.S. believed the situation in the Red Sea had reached an “inflection point.” When asked if Operation Prosperity Guardian might strike Houthi positions to prevent them from attacking ships, Cooper said the 22-nation coalition was only defensive in nature.
“Anything that happens outside of the defensive aspect of this operation is a completely different operation,” he said. The Houthis have said they target ships with Israeli ties or heading to Israel with their attacks.
But many ships have had no link to Israel and were not going to Israeli ports, and major shipping lines have stopped their operations through the Red Sea. Cooper said the ships that have been attacked have connections to 55 countries.