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US strikes Yemen after missile attacks on Navy ship

  • Published at 05:15 pm October 13th, 2016
US strikes Yemen after missile attacks on Navy ship

The US military launched cruise missile strikes on Thursday to knock out three coastal radar sites in areas of Yemen controlled by Houthi forces, retaliating after failed missile attacks this week on a US Navy destroyer, US officials said. The strikes, authorized by President Barack Obama, represent Washington's first direct military action against suspected Houthi-controlled targets in Yemen's conflict.

Still, the Pentagon appeared to stress the limited nature of the strikes, aimed at radar that enabled the launch of at least three missiles against the US Navy ship USS Mason on Sunday and Wednesday.

"These limited self-defence strikes were conducted to protect our personnel, our ships and our freedom of navigation," Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said.

US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said US Navy destroyer USS Nitze launched the Tomahawk cruise missiles around 4 am.

"These radars were active during previous attacks and attempted attacks on ships in the Red Sea," including the USS Mason, one of the officials said, adding the targeted radar sites were in remote areas where the risk of civilian casualties was low.

The official identified the areas in Yemen where the radar were located as near Ras Isa, north of Mukha and near Khoka. Shipping sources told Reuters sites were hit in the Dhubab district of Taiz province, a remote area overlooking the Bab al-Mandab Straight known for fishing and smuggling.

Safe passage

The failed missile attacks on the USS Mason appeared to be part of the reaction to a suspected Saudi-led strike on mourners gathered in Yemen's Houthi-held capital Sanaa. The Houthis, who are battling the government of Yemen President Abd Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi, denied any involvement in Sunday's attempt to strike the USS Mason.

On Thursday, the Houthis reiterated a denial that they carried out the strikes and said they did not come from areas under their control, a news agency controlled by the group reported a military source as saying. The allegations were false pretexts to "escalate aggression and cover up crimes committed against the Yemeni people", the source said.

US officials have told Reuters there were growing indications that Houthi fighters, or forces aligned with them, were responsible for Sunday's attempted strikes, in which two coastal cruise missiles designed to target ships failed to reach the destroyer.

The missile incidents, along with an October 1 strike on a vessel from the United Arab Emirates, add to questions about safety of passage for military ships around the Bab al-Mandab Strait, one of the world's busiest shipping routes.

[caption id="attachment_21768" align="aligncenter" width="800"]U.S. Navy Fire Controlman 1st Class Jorge Correa scans for threats on the guided-missile destroyer USS Mason in Bahrain September 1, 2016.   U.S. Navy/Mass Communications Specialist 3rd Class Janweb B. Lagazo/Handout via REUTERS US Navy Fire Controlman 1st Class Jorge Correa scans for threats on the guided-missile destroyer USS Mason in Bahrain September 1, 2016 REUTERS[/caption]

The Houthis, who are allied to Hadi's predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, have the support of many army units and control most of the north, including the capital Sanaa.

The Pentagon warned against any future attacks. "The United States will respond to any further threat to our ships and commercial traffic, as appropriate," Cook said.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), a leading member of a Saudi-led Arab coalition fighting to end Houthi control, denounced the attacks on the Mason as an attempt to target the freedom of navigation and to inflame the regional situation.

Michael Knights, an expert on Yemen's conflict at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, suggested the Houthis, fighters from a Shia sect, could be becoming more militarily aligned with groups such as Lebanon's Shia militant group Hezbollah.

"Targeting US warships is a sign that the Houthis have decided to join the axis of resistance that currently includes Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran," Knight said.

Although Thursday's strikes against the radar aim to undercut the ability to track and target US ships, the Houthis are still believed to possess missiles that could pose a threat.

Reuters has reported that the coastal defence cruise missiles used against the USS Mason had considerable range, fuelling concern about the kind of weaponry the Houthis appear willing to employ and some of which, US officials believe, is supplied by Iran.

One of the missiles fired on Sunday travelled more than two dozen nautical miles before splashing into the Red Sea off Yemen's southern coast, one US official said.

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Tomahawk cruise missiles

"The ship employed defensive countermeasures, and the missile did not reach USS Mason," Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said of Wednesday's incident. "There was no damage to the ship or its crew. USS Mason will continue its operations." The three sites targeted Thursday were in remote areas with little risk of civilian casualties or collateral damage, a US official said. All the sites are in Houthi-controlled territory. The destroyer USS Nitze launched the Tomahawk cruise missiles targeting the coastal radar sites. Initial assessments indicate all three targets were destroyed, the official said.

Arms deal

The United States has come under increasing pressure to stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia. The US Senate last month rejected a bipartisan proposal to block a pending $1.15 billion arms sale to Riyadh. Critics of the military deal, which was approved by the Obama administration, complained it could further drag the US into the war in Yemen and contribute to the worsening humanitarian crisis.