© Reuters. An RAF Typhoon aircraft is pictured at RAF Akrotiri following its return after striking military targets in Yemen during the U.S.-led coalition operation, aimed at the Iran-backed Houthi militia that has been targeting international shipping in the Red Se
By Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali and Mohammed Ghobari
WASHINGTON/ADEN, Yemen (Reuters) -U.S. and British warplanes, ships and submarines launched dozens of air strikes across Yemen overnight in retaliation against Iran-backed Houthi forces for attacks on Red Sea shipping, widening regional conflict stemming from Israel’s war in Gaza.
Witnesses confirmed explosions at military bases near airports in the capital Sanaa and Yemen’s third city Taiz, a naval base at the main Red Sea port Hodeidah and military sites in the coastal Hajjah governorate.
“These targeted strikes are a clear message that the United States and our partners will not tolerate attacks on our personnel or allow hostile actors to imperil freedom of navigation,” U.S. President Joe Biden said.
The Houthis said five of their fighters had been killed in a total of 73 air strikes, and that they would retaliate and continue their attacks on shipping, which they describe as intended to support Palestinians against Israel.
“We saw a large fire from where the attack took place. It was half an hour of terror,” said Kheloud, a Sanaa resident who awoke to loud explosions from the direction of the airport to the north.
The commander of U.S. air operations in the Middle East, Air Force Lieutenant-General Alex Grynkewich, said 60 targets at 16 separate locations had been hit using more than 100 precision-guided munitions.
A U.S. official said the targets were not just symbolic but intended to weaken the Houthis’ ability to attack: “We were going after very specific capability in very specific locations with precision munitions.”
In a country only just emerging from nearly a decade of war that brought millions of people to the brink of famine, morning brought long queues at petrol stations from people fearing an extended new conflict with the West.
“There is a lot of worry that the fuel shortages will repeat themselves and food supplies will be scarce,” said Ali Ahmad, 52. “We are rushing to fuel our car and we bought flour and rice in case of any emergency because we are expecting the Houthis to respond and an escalation to take place.”
PRICE OF OIL JUMPS
In Hodeidah, the main port, a resident who gave only his first name Mahmoud said troops were spreading through the streets and military vehicles were leaving barracks with security escorts.
Britain’s defence ministry said early indications were that “the Houthis’ ability to threaten merchant shipping has taken a blow”. James Heappey, a junior defence minister, said no further action was planned for now.
The price of oil rose sharply on concern that supplies could be disrupted, with up $2 on Friday. Commercial ship tracking data showed at least four oil tankers diverting from the Red Sea.
The Houthis, an armed movement that has taken control of most of Yemen over the past decade, have been attacking shipping lanes at the mouth of the Red Sea, where 15% of the world’s seaborne trade passes on routes between Europe and Asia.
The United States and allies deployed a naval task force to the area in December, and the situation had escalated in recent days.
U.S. helicopters hit Houthi forces for the first time on New Year’s Eve, sinking three boats and killing fighters attempting to board a ship. On Tuesday, the United States and Britain shot down 21 missiles and drones in what they called the biggest Houthi attack yet, directly targeting their warships.
Iran, which supports armed groups around the Middle East including both the Houthis and the Hamas militants that control Gaza, condemned the U.S. and British attacks.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who is in hospital due to complications from surgery, said in a statement that the strikes had targeted Houthi drones, ballistic and cruise missiles, coastal radar and air surveillance.
FEARS OF ESCALATION
Houthi attacks on commercial ships have forced shipping lines to send vessels on a longer, costlier route around Africa, creating fears that a new bout of inflation and supply chain disruption could derail the global economic recovery.
Carmaker Tesla (NASDAQ:) said delays to parts supplies from Asia due to Red Sea unrest had forced it to shut its factory in Germany for two weeks, the first big manufacturer to make such an announcement.
But Washington has had to weigh its determination to keep the shipping lane open against the risk of spreading war in the region. The strikes were the first by the United States on Yemeni territory since 2016, and the first time it has attacked the Iran-backed Houthis at such scale.
“The concern is that this could escalate,” said Andreas Krieg at King’s College in London.
Saudi Arabia called for restraint and “avoiding escalation”. The Saudis have for nearly a decade backed the opposing side in a war against the Houthis, which has lately been in a delicate state of U.N.-backed peace negotiations.
The United States also accused Iran of being involved operationally in the Houthi attacks, providing the military capabilities and intelligence to carry them out.
“We believe that they have been certainly involved in every phase of this,” a senior U.S. official told reporters.
Violence has also escalated in Lebanon, the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Syria and Iraq in the three months since Israel mounted a military assault on Gaza.
Israel has killed more than 23,000 Palestinians during its operation to eradicate Hamas, whose fighters attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and seizing 240 hostages.
The United States has troops on the ground in Syria and Iraq, and has previously retaliated for attacks there by Iran-backed groups. Iraq’s state news agency quoted an adviser to its prime minister as saying the West was expanding the conflict.