Yemen bombing: Who are the Houthi rebels behind attacks on ships in Red Sea? Why is the UK and US bombing the Houthi rebels?

US-led airstrikes on Yemen’s Houthi rebels in response to their attacks on shipping in the Red Sea has pulled the world’s focus back on the years-long war raging in the Arab world’s poorest nation. But who are the rebels?

Tensions in the Middle East have risen after Iranian-backed Houthi rebels began striking at ships passing through the Red Sea.

On Thursday night the UK and US struck more than a dozen sites used by the rebel group in a massive retaliatory strike after a spate of 27 attacks on shipping since November.

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The Islamist group claims it began striking a narrow strip of sea between Yemen and east Africa, which is a key international trade route, in a bid to end Israel’s air and ground offensive against Hamas.

Houthi rebels have seen military facilities in Yemen bombed by UK and Us forces after the countries promised 'retaliation' for attack in the Red Sea. Picture: AFP via Getty ImagesHouthi rebels have seen military facilities in Yemen bombed by UK and Us forces after the countries promised 'retaliation' for attack in the Red Sea. Picture: AFP via Getty Images
Houthi rebels have seen military facilities in Yemen bombed by UK and Us forces after the countries promised 'retaliation' for attack in the Red Sea. Picture: AFP via Getty Images

Who are the Houthi rebels in Yemen?

The Shia militant group is allied to Tehran, as are Hamas and Hezbollah, and seeks to reduce western influence in the Middle East.

Its slogan includes the words “death to America”, “death to Israel” and “a curse upon the Jews”. The group emerged in the 1990s and its supporters mainly come from the ranks of Zaidi Shia Muslims and the Houthi tribe.

It claimed former president Ali Abudllah Saleh had grown too close to Saudi Arabia and Israel, and tensions between them grew for several years.

The death of the group’s founder, Hussein al Houthi, at the hands of the Yemeni military led to the Houthi insurgency from 2004. The group later participated in the 2011 Yemeni revolution.

The rebels rose to prominence after capturing Yemen’s capital Sana’a in 2014, sparking a civil war, which is estimated to have killed almost 400,000 people.

They captured more territory after aligning with Mr Saleh in 2015 and now control much of western Yemen down to the Bab al Mandeb Strait, a 16-mile stretch of water which marks the entrance to the Red Sea.

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The group’s takeover of the capital prompted Saudi Arabia to intervene in a bid to restore the internationally recognised government, which has a Sunni majority.

Is this the first time strikes have targeted the Houthi rebels?

A Saudi and UAE bombing campaign against Houthi targets was launched in 2015 and drew criticism over civilian deaths, leading to calls for the UK to cease arms exports to Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, Tehran has been accused of providing arms, training and financial support to the Houthis.

The war has been viewed as a proxy in a wider conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia as they both seek greater influence across the Middle East.

Tensions rose in 2017 after the group claimed responsibility for firing a missile at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, and they killed Mr Saleh later that year after he switched from supporting them to backing the Saudi-led coalition.

The rebels have attacked Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and most recently Israel with missiles before the clashes in the Red Sea erupted.

Why has the US and UK become involved in strikes against the Houthi rebels?

US President Joe Biden said the strikes were meant to demonstrate that America and its allies “will not tolerate” the militant group’s ceaseless attacks on the Red Sea. And he said they only made the move after attempts at diplomatic negotiations and careful deliberation.

“These strikes are in direct response to unprecedented Houthi attacks against international maritime vessels in the Red Sea — including the use of anti-ship ballistic missiles for the first time in history,” Mr Biden said in a statement.

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He noted the attacks endangered US personnel and civilian mariners and jeopardised trade and added: “I will not hesitate to direct further measures to protect our people and the free flow of international commerce as necessary.”

The governments of Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand and South Korea joined the US and UK in issuing a statement saying that while the aim is to de-escalate tensions and restore stability in the Red Sea, the allies will not hesitate to defend lives and protect commerce in the critical waterway.

Russia, however, requested an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on the strikes.



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