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A joint statement issued by 13 countries on 3 January 2024 has warned the Yemen-based Houthi militia to cease mounting further attacks against international shipping in the Red Sea and Bab-el-Mandeb strait.

The statement – issued by the governments of the United States, Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore and the United Kingdom – read, “Recognizing the broad consensus as expressed by 44 countries around the world on December 19 2023, as well as the statement by the UN Security Council on December 1 2023 condemning Houthi attacks against commercial vessels transiting the Red Sea, and in light of ongoing attacks, including a significant escalation over the past week targeting commercial vessels with missiles, small boats, and attempted hijackings, we hereby reiterate the following and warn the Houthis against further attacks:

“Ongoing Houthi attacks in the Red Sea are illegal, unacceptable, and profoundly destabilizing,” the statement continued. “There is no lawful justification for intentionally targeting civilian shipping and naval vessels. Attacks on vessels, including commercial vessels, using unmanned aerial vehicles, small boats, and missiles, including the first use of anti-ship ballistic missiles against such vessels, are a direct threat to the freedom of navigation that serves as the bedrock of global trade in one of the world’s most critical waterways.

“Let our message now be clear,” the statement warned. “We call for the immediate end of these illegal attacks and release of unlawfully detained vessels and crews. The Houthis will bear the responsibility of the consequences should they continue to threaten lives, the global economy, and free flow of commerce in the region’s critical waterways. We remain committed to the international rules-based order and are determined to hold malign actors accountable for unlawful seizures and attacks.”

The statement additionally noted that nearly 15% of global seaborne trade passes through the Red Sea, including 8% of global grain trade, 12% of seaborne-traded oil and 8% of the world’s liquefied natural gas trade. International shipping companies continue to reroute their vessels around the Cape of Good Hope to avoid the Red Sea region, adding significant cost and weeks of delay to the delivery of goods and “ultimately jeopardising the movement of critical food, fuel, and humanitarian assistance throughout the world”, the statement added.

Hostile Houthi action against international shipping began in response to the Israel Defense Forces’ campaign against Hamas militants in Gaza following Hamas’ terrorist attack on southern Israel on 7 October 2023.

The Houthis initially hijacked the cargo ship Galaxy Leader using a helicopter on 19 November 2023. International shipping has subsequently been attacked by missiles and bomb-laden unmanned aerial vehicles.

Events came to a head on 31 December 2023 when US Navy (USN) helicopters from the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D Eisenhower and the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Gravely took off to deter an attempted hijack of the container ship Maersk Hangzhou by Houthis using four small boats. After being fired upon the USN helicopters returned fire, sinking three of the boats and forcing the fourth the flee the area. The Houthis subsequently acknowledged that 10 of their number had been killed in the incident.

The US Navy initiated Operation ‘Prosperity Guardian’ in the Red Sea region on 18 December 2023 to protect international shipping, while other Western navies have also sent ships to the area, yet these measures did not deter further Houthi attacks.

The USN Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Carney launching surface-to-air missiles to defeat a combination of Houthi missiles and UAVs targeting international shipping in the Red Sea on 19 October 2023. A joint statement issued by 13 countries on 3 January 2024 warned the Houthis to cease mounting further attacks against international shipping in the region. (Photo: US Navy)