The United States and its allies are weighing how to stop attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea after American and British officials said on Wednesday that their navies had intercepted one of the largest barrages yet of drones and missiles fired from an area controlled by the Houthis, an Iranian-backed group in Yemen.
The attacks, which the Houthis say will go on until Israel ends its campaign against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, are threatening maritime traffic in one of the world’s most crucial shipping lanes.
They have also raised concerns in the Middle East, Europe and the United States about the prospect of the war in Gaza spreading to new fronts, and with new combatants. On his latest tour through the region, the U.S. secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, on Wednesday warned of repercussions for the Yemeni-based militants while still trying to prevent the conflict from growing.
“What I can tell you is that, as we made clear, and many other countries made clear, there’ll be consequences for the Houthis’ actions,” Mr. Blinken said at a news conference in Manama, Bahrain, though he declined to say what the Biden administration was considering.
Britain’s defense secretary, Grant Shapps, delivered a similar message, hinting at further action as he described the missile barrage on Tuesday as the largest perpetrated by the Houthis since the start of the war in Gaza.
“This cannot continue and cannot be allowed to continue,” Mr. Shapps said in remarks to British media. “If this doesn’t stop, then action will be taken. So I’m afraid that the simplest thing is to say, ‘Watch this space.’”
Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke on Wednesday with his British counterpart, Adm. Sir Tony Radakin, about “the ongoing illegal Houthi attacks on commercial vessels” in the Red Sea, according to a statement from General Brown’s spokesman.
The United Nations Security Council was set to take up the issue on Wednesday with a proposed resolution that would demand a halt to the attacks, which have forced some of the world’s largest shipping companies to reroute vessels traveling to and from Europe via the Suez Canal. Some vessels are now traveling around Africa, which can add an extra two weeks and higher costs.
So far, the United States has held back from hitting Houthi bases in Yemen, in large part because it does not want to undermine a fragile truce in Yemen’s civil war, military officials said. Pentagon officials have drawn up plans for striking missile and drone bases in Yemen, as well as facilities that harbor the fast boats the Houthis use to attack ships.
At the same time, the Biden administration has said it will hold the Houthis responsible for the attacks, a warning that suggested the government may be considering retaliatory strikes in Yemen.
“We’re going to do everything we have to do to protect shipping in the Red Sea,” the U.S. national security spokesman, John Kirby, said at a news conference on Wednesday. Like the secretary of state, Mr. Kirby did not describe what the White House was considering, saying instead that it would coordinate with allies and that “the United States does not seek conflict.”
Mr. Blinken, speaking on Wednesday during the latest stop on his tour through the Middle East, said that the United States and other nations had repeatedly made clear to Iran that its support for the Houthis’ actions had to stop.
The United States and a dozen allies issued an ultimatum to the Houthis last week to cease their near-daily attacks. “Last night proved they really are not listening,” Mr. Shapps said, referring to the latest Houthi barrage.
European Union nations, many of which rely on the Suez Canal for oil supplies and other trade, appear divided on how to counter the attacks, which began in November when the Houthis seized the Galaxy Leader, a Japanese-operated cargo ship that remains anchored off the coast of Yemen.
Denmark, Greece and the Netherlands have joined the United States in their operations in the Red Sea, but others, including France and Italy, have kept ships under their own command, said Luigi Scazzieri, an analyst at the Center for European Reform, a research organization.
“There isn’t a cohesive E.U. position on this at all,” he said.
Italy’s defense minister, Guido Crosetto, told the Reuters news agency on Wednesday that while he agreed that the attacks should be stopped, he feared the consequences of another conflict on top of those already taking place in Ukraine and Gaza.
“I would not like to open a third front of war at this time,” Mr. Crosetto said.
The U.S. military’s Central Command described the drone and missile barrage fired from Houthi-controlled territory late Tuesday as “a complex attack.”
Fighter jets from the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower and four other warships intercepted 18 drones, two anti-ship cruise missiles and one anti-ship ballistic missile, Central Command said in a statement. No injuries or damage were reported, the command said.
A Houthi military spokesman, Yahya Sarea, said in a statement on Wednesday that the group’s forces had used “a large number” of missiles and drones to target an American ship “that was offering support to the Zionist entity.” It was not immediately clear if he was describing the attack on Tuesday.
Mr. Sarea said the attack was in response to an assault by the U.S. Navy 10 days ago that sank three Houthi boats, killing their crew members. The Navy has said the boats fired on American helicopters coming to aid a Maersk cargo ship.
The Houthis, who have taken over much of northern Yemen since they stormed the Yemeni capital, Sana, in 2014, have been gaining popularity across the Middle East and building regional clout with their attacks in the Red Sea.
Mr. Sarea said they would “continue to prevent Israeli ships or those headed to the ports of occupied Palestine from sailing in the Arabian and Red Seas until the aggression stops and the siege on our steadfast brothers in Gaza is lifted.”
Israeli officials have said they expect the war in Gaza to go on for many months, though they report making progress toward their goal of uprooting Hamas, which led an attack on Israel on Oct. 7 that killed an estimated 1,200 people. Benny Gantz, a member of the Israeli war cabinet, said Wednesday that in large parts of Gaza, Hamas had “effectively lost its ruling capabilities.”
On Monday, the Israeli military spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, said the war had entered a new phase, with Israel drawing down its troops, focusing on southern Gaza and decreasing the number of airstrikes.
United Nations officials say the bombardment of the territory remains intense. The World Health Organization said Wednesday that it had canceled a planned medical aid mission to Gaza over security concerns, the sixth cancellation in two weeks.
“Intense bombardment, restrictions on movement, fuel shortage and interrupted communications make it impossible for W.H.O. and our partners to reach those in need,” the agency’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said in a briefing Wednesday.
Sean Casey, the agency’s emergency medical team coordinator in Gaza, told reporters this week that the territory’s health system was collapsing “at a very rapid pace.”
On visits on Sunday to Al Aqsa Hospital in central Gaza and Nasser Hospital in the south, Mr. Casey said, he found that 70 percent of the medical staff had fled in recent days because of Israeli orders to evacuate and intense fighting in the area. That left a handful of medical staff to treat large numbers of seriously injured people, including many children.
“I’ve been in Gaza for five weeks,” he said. “I have not seen a lowering of the intensity of the conflict.”
Nick Cumming-Bruce contributed reporting.