UK struck Houthis because rebels 'pose imminent threat', PM says as Keir Starmer backs military action

23 January 2024, 13:08

A row has developed between Labour and the Conservatives.
A row has developed between Labour and the Conservatives. Picture: Alamy

By Will Taylor

Rishi Sunak has said the Houthis' continued attacks on Red Sea vessels cannot go unanswered as he said they posed an immediate threat to international shipping.

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The prime minister said joint UK-US airstrikes overnight targeted Houthi targets north of Sanaa, the Yemeni capital held by the rebel group.

A dozen attacks have been carried out since the first joint strikes carried out by the UK with the US, he added, prompting this follow up bombardment.

Mr Sunak told the Commons: "We did so because we continue to see, including in intelligence, an ongoing and imminent threat from the Houthis to UK commercial and military vessels, and to those of our partners in the Red Sea and wider region."

He said the strikes were in line with international law and "limited to carefully selected targets with maximum care taken to protect civilian lives".

The rebels have been condemned by Yemen's internationally recognised government, Mr Sunak told MPs, and a full debate on the military action will be held on Wednesday,

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer backed the action, saying: "Houthi attacks must stop, we must stand united and strong."

But he said MPs needed to be told more about how effective the strikes were, and told the PM to outline how confident he is that the bombings will degrade Houthi capabilities.

He did not mention a row that broke out earlier over whether he was given advance knowledge of the strikes.

Speaking to LBC's Nick Ferrari at Breakfast on Tuesday morning, shadow health minister Karin Smyth insisted Sir Keir was not briefed about the strikes in advance like he was the first time around.

She said: "No he wasn't, and that is unusual. We expect the government to clarify this today and come before Parliament."

But Tory transport minister Huw Merriman said: "They were informed, is my understanding."

Sources at No10 claimed that Labour was briefed about the strikes last night, but not in advance.

Tory MP Tobias Ellwood said: “Keir Starmer was informed of the general operation when the first wave of attacks happened.

“This is a continuing operation and it is not normal to seek confirmation from the political side every time there is an advance.

"I don't see the necessity to inform the Leader of the Opposition every time we step forward to conduct a strike with our partners.

"I hear what is being said [from Labour] but as somebody in the military you want political interference at a minimum.

“This was to continue on an ongoing operation, this is what the Labour Party need to recognise, this is an ongoing mission.”

Lord Cameron said the latest round of strikes were intended to 'send a clear message'.
Lord Cameron said the latest round of strikes were intended to 'send a clear message'. Picture: Alamy

Eight targets were hit in the strikes, including an underground storage site and Houthi missile and surveillance capability, the Pentagon said.

The Houthi rebels, who occupy swathes of western Yemen and are backed by Iran, have been attacking cargo ships in the Red Sea - an important global trade route.

They say it is a form of a blockade against Israel, and say they support Gaza.

Foreign secretary David Cameron said on Tuesday that the strikes were designed to send a "clear message" to the Houthi rebels over their "illegal" attacks.

He said: "Since we last took action 10 days ago, there have been over 12 attacks on shipping by the Houthis in the Red Sea.

"These attacks are illegal, they are unacceptable.

"What we have done again is send the clearest possible message that we will continue to degrade their ability to carry out these attacks while sending the clearest possible message that we back our words and our warnings with action."

Asked if the strikes would escalate tensions in the Middle East, the Lord Cameron blamed the Houthis for escalating the situation.

He also rejected the notion that the Houthis’ attacks were related to the Israel-Hamas war, adding that the UK wants to see a “swift end to the conflict in Gaza”.

A row seems to have broken out between the two parties over the discrepancy.
A row seems to have broken out between the two parties over the discrepancy. Picture: PA

The UK and US first launched joint strikes against the rebel group on January 11, after which the Houthis vowed retaliation.

Defence secretary Grant Shapps said Britain used four RAF Typhoons, supported by a pair of Voyager refuelling tankers.

The White House confirmed on Monday that Rishi Sunak had spoken with US President Joe Biden about the ongoing attacks against naval vessels in the Red Sea.

Mr Biden and Mr Sunak reiterated "their commitment to freedom of navigation, international commerce, and defending mariners from illegal and unjustifiable attacks".

A White House spokesperson said: "The president and prime minister discussed the importance of increasing humanitarian aid and civilian protections for people in Gaza, and securing the release of hostages held by Hamas."

Read More: US hits Houthi sites as Biden says allied action has not yet halted ship attacks

Read More: Houthi rebels attack US cargo ship off Yemen coast and vow 'more attacks are coming'

A joint statement from governments across the world, including the US, UK, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, and Bahrain, said eight Houthi targets in Yemen were hit.

"These precision strikes are intended to disrupt and degrade the capabilities that the Houthis use to threaten global trade and the lives of innocent mariners, and are in response to a series of illegal, dangerous, and destabilising Houthi actions since our coalition strikes on January 11," they said.

"Today's strike specifically targeted a Houthi underground storage site and locations associated with the Houthis' missile and air surveillance capabilities.

"The Houthis' now more than thirty attacks on international and commercial vessels since mid-November constitute an international challenge.

"Recognising the broad consensus of the international community, we again acted as part of a coalition of like-minded countries committed to upholding the rules-based order, protecting freedom of navigation and international commerce, and holding the Houthis accountable for their illegal and unjustifiable attacks on mariners and commercial shipping.

"Our aim remains to de-escalate tensions and restore stability in the Red Sea, but let us reiterate our warning to Houthi leadership: we will not hesitate to defend lives and the free flow of commerce in one of the world's most critical waterways in the face of continued threats."

RAF Typhoon fighter plane
RAF Typhoon fighter plane. Picture: MoD

The latest barrage of allied attacks follows an almost-daily assault on Houthi missile launchers by US fighter jets and ship-based Tomahawks over the past week.

The rapid response missions, which officials said go after launchers armed and ready to fire, demonstrate the military's increasing ability to watch, detect and strike militant activities in Yemen.