Houthis warn UK-US strikes will not go 'unpunished' as thousands protest in Yemen

Iranian demonstrators burn representations of British and US flags in front of the British Embassy in Tehran, Iran.
Credit: AP

Houthi rebels have warned that joint UK-US missile strikes will not go "unanswered and unpunished" as tens of thousands of people gathered in Yemen's capital to protest the military action.

In a televised address, Houthi spokesman, Brigadier General Yahya Sarees, said: "The American and British enemy bears full responsibility for its criminal aggression against our Yemeni people."

Overnight on Thursday, British and American military assets bombed more than a dozen targets in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen from fighter jets and Tomahawk missiles on Thursday night, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and President Joe Biden confirmed.

At least five people died and six were left injured, a spokesperson for the Houthis said. 

The strikes follow a series of attacks by the Iran-backed force against commercial shipping in the Red Sea, which have caused issues to global trade.

Houthis say they are attacking ships in the Red Sea, which are either Israeli or heading to Israeli ports, in response to ongoing air and ground offensive inside the Gaza Strip.

On Friday, large crowds, some of whom chanted "death to America, death to Israel", gathered in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, to voice their disapproval at the UK-US airstrikes.

Protesters also gathered outside the British Embassy in Tehran, Iran's capital, with some seen burning Israeli, American and British flags.

White House spokesperson John Kirby reportedly told media outlets on Air Force One that the US is "not interested" in a war with Yemen, but will not hesitate to take further action if it feels it necessary.

The overnight strikes are the first to have been launched against the Shia militant group - which is allied to Tehran, as are Hamas and Hezbollah - since it started targeting international shipping in the Red Sea late last year.

Brigadier General Yahya Sarees described 73 strikes hitting five regions of Yemen under Houthi control, but he did not elaborate on what the strikes targeted.

But it remains unclear how extensive the damage from the strikes was. 

Mr Sunak confirmed the Royal Air Force (RAF) had carried out "targeted strikes", saying the UK will "always stand up for freedom of navigation and the free flow of trade".

He and Mr Biden said they had acted together with the "non-operational support" of Australia, Bahrain, Canada, and the Netherlands "to degrade Houthi military capabilities and protect global shipping".

Denmark, Germany, New Zealand and South Korea also added their names to the six nations that took part in the joint strikes.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) said coalition forces identified key facilities involved in Houthi targeting of HMS Diamond and US Navy vessels on Tuesday "and agreed to conduct a carefully coordinated strike to reduce the Houthis' capability to violate international law in this manner".

The Ministry of Defence targeted Houthi rebels in a series of air strikes, coordinated with the US, overnight

The prime minister said: "In recent months, the Houthi militia have carried out a series of dangerous and destabilising attacks against commercial shipping in the Red Sea, threatening UK and other international ships, causing major disruption to a vital trade route and driving up commodity prices.

"Their reckless actions are risking lives at sea and exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in Yemen."

He said the Royal Navy continues to patrol the Red Sea to deter further Houthi aggression, and urge rebels to stop their attacks and de-escalate.”

Defence Secretary Grant Shapps said in a post on X, formerly Twitter: "This action was not only necessary, it was our duty to protect vessels and freedom of navigation."

President Biden said the strikes were a direct response to "unprecedented" Houthi attacks "including the use of anti-ship ballistic missiles for the first time in history".

He warned the strikes are a "clear message" that America and its allies "will not tolerate attacks on our personnel or allow hostile actors to imperil freedom of navigation", adding that more than 50 nations have been affected in 27 Houthi rebel attacks on international commercial shipping. 

"Crews from more than 20 countries have been threatened or taken hostage in acts of piracy," he continued.

"More than 2,000 ships have been forced to divert thousands of miles to avoid the Red Sea - which can cause weeks of delays in product shipping times.

"I will not hesitate to direct further measures to protect our people."

The military targets included logistical hubs, air defence systems and weapons storage locations, US officials said.

A senior US official spoke to ITV News and other media outlets immediately following the strikes.

"At least three ships have been hit, and we've been, we've had extremely close calls, such as a ship, as I had mentioned, carrying US owned jet fuel that the Houthis targeted last month," the US official said.

"The Houthis claim that there are attacks on military and civilian vessels are somehow tied to the ongoing conflict in Gaza that is completely baseless and illegitimate.

"[They] also planned to be targeting specifically Israeli-owned, ships or ships bound for Israel. That is simply not true. They are firing indiscriminately on vessels with global ties.

"Most of the ships that have come under attack have nothing whatsoever to do with Israel, and even if they were that, even if that were not the case, it is no justification for these illegal attacks in international waterways."

The UK and US had previously warned further action would be taken if attacks persist, amid growing global concern about the disruption in the Red Sea.

Rishi Sunak responds as he is asked 'what happens if the airstrikes don't work?'

When asked what would happen if the strikes do not deter the attacks, Rishi Sunak, who is on a visit to Ukraine, told reporters: "We've carried out a series of strikes together with allies, which will we believe degrade and disrupt the capability.

"The types of things that we've targeted are launch sites for missiles and for drones. Initial indications are that those strikes have been successful. We’ll continue to monitor the situation.

"But it's clear that this type of behaviour can't be met without a response. We need to send a strong signal that this breach of international law is wrong. People can't act like this with impunity and that's why together with allies we've decided to take this action."

The strikes came after Mr Sunak called an emergency meeting with his Cabinet earlier on Thursday night to prepare action against the rebels, after they fired an anti-ship ballistic missile into the Gulf of Aden on Thursday.

Ministers discussed a response to disruption on the key global shipping route after UK and US naval forces repelled what is believed to have been the largest assault yet by the Iran-backed group on Tuesday.

Naval assets from the UK and United States on Tuesday destroyed "multiple attack drones", two cruise missiles and an anti-ship missile deployed by Houthi rebels. A Royal Naval air destroyer - HMS Diamond - helped to repel the attack.

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In an unusual move, the government briefed Sir Keir Starmer and shadow defence secretary John Healey after the Cabinet call on Thursday. Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle also visited the Cabinet Office late in the evening.

Sir Lindsay has said he is "happy to facilitate" a recall of Parliament "at any time" amid calls for greater consultation of MPs on the British military action, but Mr Sunak has said he will not be making a statement until Monday.

Labour is "fully supportive" of the action needed to respond to attacks by Houthi rebels and it is "for the government" to make a statement to Parliament about the intervention, Sir Keir said.

The Liberal Democrats have called for a retrospective vote on the military action in the Red Sea and for MPs to be recalled to Parliament.

Labour leader Keir Starmer has urged the prime minister to make a statement to parliament over the airstrikes in Yemen

The party's foreign affairs spokesperson Layla Moran said: "Parliament should not be bypassed.

"We remain very concerned about the Houthis' attacks. But that makes it all the more important to ensure that MPs are not silenced on the important issue of military action."

Mr Sunak appeared to play down concerns over this during his visit to meet Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in Kyiv.

He said: "Every case is different. What we have done here is take limited and necessary action in response to a specific threat in self defence.

"And if you look at similar situations in 2015 and 2018 a statement was made to Parliament after the action and that’s what I will be doing on Monday. I'll be making a full statement in Parliament and taking questions."

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