The United States has launched its first strike on Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen in retaliation for days of attacks on a navy warship, becoming an active combatant in a brutal war led by Washington’s ally Saudi Arabia.
The Pentagon announced late on Wednesday that it struck and destroyed three radar sites controlled by the Iranian-backed Houthi movement in Yemen.
The sites were described as being involved in two missile attacks over the past four days on the destroyer USS Mason, operating out of the Bab al-Mandeb waterway between Yemen and east Africa.
There was no immediate word on any casualties from the US attack on the radar sites, which the Pentagon noted came with the direct authorization of Barack Obama.
“These limited self-defense strikes were conducted to protect our personnel, our ships, and our freedom of navigation,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said.
US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said US Navy destroyer USS Nitze launched the Tomahawk cruise missiles around 4am local time (0100 GMT).
“These radars were active during previous attacks and attempted attacks on ships in the Red Sea,” including the USS Mason, one of the officials said, adding the targeted radar sites were in remote areas where the risk of civilian casualties was low.
A Houthi military official denied the fighters had fired at US vessels. “Those claims are baseless,” the official said, according to rebel-controlled Saba news agency.
While the US has conducted lethal attacks in Yemen against al-Qaida forces throughout Obama’s presidency, killing civilians as well as US nationals, Wednesday’s reprisal strikes were Washington’s first against the Houthis. They raised the prospect of deeper US involvement in what many in the region and Washington see as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Houthi missiles have also struck deeper into Saudi Arabia and on Monday were reported to have struck the Taif airbase near Mecca.
The US has supported the Saudis with aerial refuelling and highly controversial arms sales but the Obama administration has recently attempted to distance itself from the Yemen conflict. After Saudi airstrikes on Saturday targeted a funeral and left 140 dead the White House rebuked Riyadh, saying that its aid to a war begun in March 2015 was “not a blank check.”
That was before a US navy ship came under fire from territory controlled by the Houthis. Missiles fired at the Mason did not damage the ship but left many in Washington wondering if the US would be drawn deeper into the conflict following an apparent decision by the Houthis or their Iranian patrons to target the Mason.
Earlier on Wednesday Admiral John Richardson, the chief of US naval operations, had praised the Mason crew and suggested retaliation for the missile strikes was imminent.
“These unjustified attacks are serious but they will not deter us from our mission. We are trained and ready to defend ourselves and to respond quickly and decisively,” Richardson said.