The Prime Minister has said the Houthis’ “illegal” harassment campaign in the Red Sea is having “economic consequences”, as he defended the UK taking part in a third wave of air strikes.
There have been fears that the attacks on commercial ships in the Middle East could drive up the price of goods in the shops, as cargo firms are forced to re-route their vessels via longer and more costly routes to avoid clashes with the rebel group.
Rishi Sunak said the UK on Saturday had acted in “self-defence” when taking part in joint air strikes with the US to target Houthi sites in Yemen.
He repeated that he “won’t hesitate to protect British lives”, in a signal that he would be undeterred from continuing to approve further RAF bombing raids if the Houthis do not desist.
Earlier on Sunday, Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron said the “reckless” Houthi attacks “must stop”.
But rebel leaders said the latest allied air strikes would not deter them from targeting commercial ships in an operation they say is backing Palestinians in Gaza.
Houthi military spokesman Brigadier General Yahya Saree said: “These attacks will not discourage Yemeni forces and the nation from maintaining their support for Palestinians in the face of the Zionist occupation and crimes.
“The aggressors’ air strikes will not go unanswered.”
The Houthis have repeatedly launched attacks on vessels in the Red Sea and elsewhere off the Yemen coast in recent months, claiming they are targeting Israeli or Israel-destined ships in protest at the war with Hamas in Gaza.
However, they have frequently set upon ships with tenuous or no clear links to Israel, endangering shipping on a major global trade route used for accessing the Suez Canal.
As a result of the clashes in the southern Red Sea and the Bab al Mandab Strait, vessels have had to be redirected around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, increasing the journey duration and fuel costs.
The rise in costs could lead to an increase in prices for consumers in Britain and elsewhere.
Mr Sunak spoke about the UK’s decision to conduct another wave of air strikes with the US during his visit to Northern Ireland on Sunday, following earlier joint action on January 11 and 22.
The Conservative Party leader told broadcasters: “Since the last set of strikes, we have seen the Houthis continue to attack shipping in the Red Sea.
“That is obviously unacceptable, it is illegal. It puts innocent people’s lives at risk and it has economic consequences.
“It includes attacks, by the way, on British-linked vessels.
“And that is why we have acted again in self-defence, in a proportionate way, and together with our allies.
“I have been clear that I won’t hesitate to protect British lives, British interests, and our diplomatic efforts are focused on bringing de-escalation and stability back to the region.”
The Liberal Democrats have urged Mr Sunak to continue to provide Parliament with “an opportunity to have its say” on the strikes through a debate and vote in the House of Commons.
Party leader Sir Ed Davey said: “It is becoming increasingly worrying that the Prime Minister seems to be doing all he can to avoid a proper debate and accountability in Parliament.”
Mr Sunak made a statement in the Commons on January 15 following the first UK-US assault, and MPs held a debate on January 23, a day after the second wave.
The UK and the US have carried out further strikes on Houthi military targets.
We have issued repeated warnings to the Houthis.
Their reckless actions are putting innocent lives at risk, threatening the freedom of navigation and destabilising the region.
— David Cameron (@David_Cameron) February 4, 2024
During Saturday’s attacks, RAF Typhoons used precision-guided bombs against several military targets at three locations, the Ministry of Defence said.
According to the MoD, allied intelligence had calculated some of the stations were being used to launch drone attacks and to spy on freight vessels and western warships.
The ministry said the night-time raids were designed to ensure minimal risk of civilian casualties.
The US described hitting underground missile arsenals, launch sites and helicopters used by the rebels.
Defence Secretary Grant Shapps denied the attacks were escalatory.
He said on Saturday he was “confident” the military action had “further degraded” Houthi capabilities to carry out its missile and drone ambushes.
The Houthis are a Shia rebel group that has held Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, since 2014 and been at war with a Saudi-led coalition backing the country’s exiled government since 2015.