Houthis vow retaliation for U.S.-U.K. strikes; regional conflict feared

Houthi militants vowed Friday to retaliate against dozens of U.S. and British strikes on their positions in Yemen, a threat that provoked fears of further escalation in the seething Middle East.

Houthi military spokesman Yahya Saree said the overnight strikes would not go “unpunished or unanswered.” In a video message Friday, he said the action would not deter the Iran-back militant group from continuing to target ships in the Red Sea to protest Israel’s military campaign against Hamas.

“The American and British enemy bears full responsibility for its criminal aggression against the Yemeni people,” he said.

The strikes, which President Biden said were necessary to protect the key trade route after 27 attacks on international commercial shipping, hit more than 60 targets in Yemen, including air defenses, munitions depots and rocket-launching sites, U.S. officials said.

Saree said 73 strikes hit Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, and four other regions, killing five of the group’s fighters and wounding six.

British forces joined the action with four Typhoon fighter jets, Armed Forces Minister James Heappey said. They struck two sites used to launch drone and missile attacks.

No further strikes were “immediately planned,” Heappey told the BBC on Friday.

“We were confident that these limited, proportionate, necessary strikes that went in last night were necessary to disrupt the Houthis’ ability to attack our warships that are protecting shipping in the Red Sea,” he said.

Biden, in slightly different messaging, said he would “not hesitate to direct further measures” as needed to ensure the free flow of international commerce.

The action increased fears that Israel’s U.S.-backed war in Gaza will spread into a regional conflagration. Israel and Hezbollah have been exchanging fire over the border between Israel and Lebanon nearly daily. As Hezbollah has shied from escalation, the Houthis have seized the opportunity to bolster their standing in the region by positioning themselves as Gaza’s defenders against Israel.

The group functions as a de facto government in the swaths of Yemen it controls. That includes strategically crucial territory on the Bab-al-Mandeb Strait, the shipping choke point between the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal, key to trade between Asia, Europe and the United States.

Their attacks have forced some container ships to reroute thousands of miles and spend more money on fuel and insurance, which has disrupted trade and pushed up commodity prices.

Some observers say the limited strikes will probably have little impact on a guerrilla force hardened by a nine-year Saudi-led air campaign, while increasing the risk of escalation.

Omani Foreign Minister Badr Albusaidi said the strikes went “against our advice and will only add fuel to an extremely dangerous situation.”

“I urge all parties to exercise restraint and focus on a cease-fire in Gaza now,” he wrote on social media.

Saudi Arabia, which is trying to conclude a peace deal with the Houthis, said it was “closely monitoring” events in the Red Sea and inside Yemen “with great concern,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

Iran, which has avoided direct confrontation with the United States since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7 and Israel launched its campaign in Gaza, called the strikes “a clear violation of Yemen’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani said the United States launched the strikes “to divert the attention of the people of the world” from the war in Gaza. Russia’s mission to the United Nations said it had requested an urgent meeting of the Security Council, which it expected would be convened Friday afternoon.

The governments of Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States said the strikes “demonstrated a shared commitment to freedom of navigation, international commerce, and defending the lives of mariners from illegal and unjustifiable attacks.”

U.S. and other officials say the Houthis have launched attacks on commercial shipping since November, leading to distress calls and engagement with U.S. and other warships.

Adam Taylor, Andrew Jeong and Victoria Bissett contributed to this report.

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