US announces 10-nation force to counter Houthi attacks in Red Sea

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin says coalition will include Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, UK and other countries.

Lloyd Austin
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has called for collective action to combat attacks on ships in the Red Sea [Maya Alleruzzo/AP Photo]

The United States has announced the launch of a multinational force to protect trade in the Red Sea after attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels forced at least a dozen shipping lines to suspend operations.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Monday that Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Seychelles and the United Kingdom would be among the countries joining the 10-nation “multinational security initiative”.

“Countries that seek to uphold the foundational principle of freedom of navigation must come together to tackle the challenge posed by this non-state actor,” Austin said in a statement, describing the attacks as an issue that “demands collective action”.

The announcement comes after the US and UK navies said over the weekend that their destroyers had shot down a total of 15 drones in the waterway.

INTERACTIVE_Israel-Palestine_Red Sea Patrol Force _19DEC2023

The Iran-aligned Houthis have ramped up drone and missile attacks on vessels in key shipping lanes since the start of the war in Gaza, targeting ships alleged to have links to Israel or Israelis.

The rebel group said on Monday it had attacked the Norwegian-owned Swan Atlantic and the MSC Clara using naval drones to show solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza.

Swan Atlantic’s owner, Norway’s Inventor Chemical Tankers, said in a statement the vessel had no link to Israel and was managed by a Singaporean firm.

There were no injuries reported by either vessel.

Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a senior Houthi official and spokesperson, told Al Jazeera on Monday that the group would confront any US-led coalition in the Red Sea.

More countries to be included

The coalition might also include Egypt and Jordan as additional Arab nations to Bahrain, as they have a vested interest in ensuring the safe passage of ships, said Al Jazeera’s Sara Khairat, reporting from occupied East Jerusalem.

“It is still not clear whether they will join the fold later. Egypt and Jordan, as well as some of the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries, including Saudi Arabia, are part of the Combined Maritime Forces, which the coalition will be under the umbrella of,” Khairat reported.

“Reading between the lines, it’s a very difficult situation for some of these Middle Eastern countries. You have Saudi Arabia, which is very close, it seems, to signing a deal with the Houthi rebels in Yemen,” she added.

“You have Egypt, which doesn’t want to be seen as going against the Houthis’ message on Gaza – which is for Israel to stop the war on the enclave.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a call with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud on Monday on the issue, discussing the ways to avoid further conflict.

Blinken “condemned continued attacks by the Houthis on commercial vessels operating in international waters in the southern Red Sea and urged cooperation among all partners to uphold maritime security”, the US Department of State said in a statement after the call.

Austin, who was visiting Israel, is scheduled to hold talks in Bahrain and Qatar on Tuesday.

Companies avoid Red Sea

At least 12 shipping companies, including the Italian-Swiss giant Mediterranean Shipping Company, France’s CMA CGM and Denmark’s AP Moller-Maersk, have suspended transit through the Red Sea due to safety concerns.

UK oil giant BP on Monday became the latest firm to announce it would avoid the waters.

“In light of the deteriorating security situation for shipping in the Red Sea, BP has decided to temporarily pause all transits through the Red Sea,” the company said in a statement.

“We will keep this precautionary pause under ongoing review, subject to circumstances as they evolve in the region.”

Houthi attacks have effectively rerouted a significant portion of global trade by forcing freight companies to sail around Africa, imposing higher costs and delays for energy, food and consumer goods deliveries.

About 12 percent of global trade passes through the Red Sea, which connects to the Mediterranean Sea via the Suez Canal, including 30 percent of container traffic.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies