20231219 llyod austin
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. Image Credit: Reuters

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced a new maritime task force intended to protect commercial vessels traveling through the Red Sea from attacks by Houthi militants.

"The recent escalation in reckless Houthi attacks originating from Yemen threatens the free flow of commerce, endangers innocent mariners and violates international law," Austin said in a statement Monday. "This is an international challenge that demands collective action."

Austin said the countries involved in the new task force "- dubbed Operation Prosperity Guardian "- include the US, the UK, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, the Seychelles and Spain. It will be run under the umbrella of a pre-existing grouping in the region, the Combined Maritime Forces, and the leadership of its Task Force 153, which focuses on the Red Sea.

The attacks in the Red Sea, which handles about 12% of world trade as a key waterway for goods and energy, have emerged as a fresh threat to global supply chains and an extension of the hostilities in the Gaza Strip, where Israel is vowing to stamp out Iran-backed Hamas. The US says the Houthis also are acting as proxies of Iran.

Austin, speaking at a briefing in Tel Aviv with his Israeli counterpart earlier in the day, said he would convene a virtual ministerial meeting Tuesday to discuss ways to protect ships in the Red Sea. The US has been consulting with Gulf allies about potential military action against the Houthis in response to their increasingly brazen attacks.

The Houthis have claimed repeated attacks in the Red Sea on commercial vessels in the last several days, incidents that the US and allies say are intended to provoke a wider Middle East War.

Oil prices gained Monday after BP Plc said it's pausing all shipments through the Red Sea and Norwegian energy company Equinor ASA said it's diverting vessels away from the region. Brent crude futures rose as much as 3.9% in London trading. The disruption also impacted the European natural gas market, with benchmark prices jumping as much as 13% in Amsterdam. Liquefied natural gas tankers often travel between the Middle East and Europe via the Red Sea and Suez Canal.