US-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles destroyed three coastal radar sites in Houthi-controlled territory on Yemen's Red Sea Coast early Thursday, officials said, a retaliatory action that followed two incidents this week in which missiles were fired at US Navy ships.
The strikes marked the first shots fired by the US in anger against the Houthis in Yemen's long-running civil war.
The US previously only provided logistical support and refueling to the Saudi-led coalition battling Yemen's Shiite rebels known as Houthis and their allies, including supporters of Yemen's former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. ]
While the US military has been focused on al-Qaida in Yemen, the Houthis had not been a primary target of American forces until the missile launches from Houthi-controlled territory this week.
No information on casualties from the US missiles was provided by American officials. The three radar sites were in remote areas, where there was little risk of civilian casualties or collateral damage, said a military official who was not authorised to be named and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The destroyer USS Nitze launched the cruise missiles, the official said.
President Barack Obama authorised the strikes at the recommendation of Defence Secretary Ash Carter and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said in a statement. US officials had said earlier that the US was weighing what military response to take.
"These limited self-defence strikes were conducted to protect our personnel, our ships and our freedom of navigation in this important maritime passageway," Cook said following the US action. "The United States will respond to any further threat to our ships and commercial traffic, as appropriate, and will continue to maintain our freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, the Bab al-Mandeb and elsewhere around the world."
Loai al-Shami, a Houthi spokesman, declined to comment immediately on the US strike.
Early Wednesday, two missiles were fired at the USS Mason, an Arleigh Burke class of guided missile destroyer that is conducting routine operations in the region with the USS Ponce, an amphibious warship. Neither missile got near the ship, said a US military official.
The missiles were fired from the Yemen coast, near the location used Sunday when two missiles were launched at the same two ships, said the official, who was not authorized to be named and spoke on condition of anonymity.
A second official said it wasn't clear whether the ship's countermeasures caused the missiles to hit the water on Wednesday or if they would have landed there anyway. The official also spoke on condition of anonymity.
"These unjustified attacks are serious, but they will not deter us from our mission," the chief of naval operations, Adm. John Richardson, said in a statement Wednesday. "The team in USS Mason demonstrated initiative and toughness as they defended themselves and others against these unfounded attacks over the weekend and again today. All Americans should be proud of them."
The missiles fired on Sunday were variants of the so-called Silkworm missile, and both also fell harmlessly into the water. The Silkworm is a type of coastal defense cruise missile that Iran has been known to use.
Sunday was the first time that US ships were targeted by a missile launch from Yemen.
Bryan Clark, a naval analyst at the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said Sunday's event was "very significant."
"It might be the first time the SM-2 was used against an actual threat for which it was designed,” he said.
"It’s definitely the first time ESM has been used … This is obviously a huge deal."
Last week, an Emirati-leased Swift boat came under rocket fire near the same area and sustained serious damage. The United Arab Emirates described the vessel as carrying humanitarian aid and having a crew of civilians, while the Houthis called the boat a warship.
The US has been considering withdrawing its support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis following Saturday's airstrike on a funeral and other troubling incidents of civilian casualties as a result of the Saudi bombing campaign.
The strike on the funeral in the capital, Sanaa, killed some 140 people and wounded more than 600. That bombing, among the deadliest of the war, likely sparked the rebels to launch more ballistic missiles in Saudi Arabia and target the U.S. warships in the Red Sea.
Human rights groups have expressed outrage over the deaths and accused the U.S. of complicity, leading the White House to say it was conducting a "review" to ensure U.S. cooperation with longtime partner Saudi Arabia is in line with "U.S. principles, values and interests."
The US missile launch also could affect relations with Iran, which says it backs the Yemeni rebels but denies arming them. That's contradicted by the US Navy, which says it has intercepted several shipping boats since the war began carrying Iranian weaponry suspected to be on the way to Yemen.
There was no immediate reaction to the US launch Thursday morning in Iran, which was marking the Shiite commemoration of Ashoura. Houthi-linked media also did not report the strike.
The missile fire by the Houthi raises questions about maritime safety in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which serves as a gateway for oil tankers headed to Europe through the Suez Canal. The U.S. moved more naval ships near the strait after an Emirati-leased Swift boat came under rocket fire near the same area and sustained serious damage. The United Arab Emirates described the vessel as carrying humanitarian aid and having a crew of civilians, while the Houthis called the boat a warship.
Analysts with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy called the Houthi missile fire "a surprisingly aggressive move," but stressed there were limits to Iran's control of the rebels.
"Houthi relations with the Islamic Republic resemble the Iran-Hamas relationship more than the Iran-Hezbollah relationship -- that is, the Houthis are autonomous partners who usually act in accordance with their own interests, though often with smuggled Iranian arms and other indirect help," the analysts wrote in a report released early Thursday.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies