Armed Al Houthi militants stand on the beach as the Galaxy Leader commercial ship seized in December, is anchored off the coast of Al Salif, Yemen. Image Credit: REUTERS file

LONDON: Defence Secretary Grant Shapps said on Monday that Britain is “willing to take direct action” against Iran-backed Al Houthi militants in Yemen who have repeatedly attacked vessels in the Red Sea.

London’s warning comes amid escalating tensions in the vital shipping lane, with US Navy helicopters firing on Sunday on Houthis who attempted to board a cargo ship.

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The militants, who seized Yemen’s capital Sana’a in 2014 and control much of country including its Red Sea coastline, have reported 10 fighters dead or missing.

The Houthis - who say they are acting in solidarity with Palestinians in the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza - have repeatedly fired drones and missiles at passing ships in the seaway through which 12 percent of global trade passes.

Hours after the latest incident, Shapps said Britain could step up its own military interventions. A British destroyer shot down a suspected Al Houthi attack drone in the Red Sea in mid-December.

“We are willing to take direct action, and we won’t hesitate to take further action to deter threats to freedom of navigation in the Red Sea,” he wrote in the Daily Telegraph newspaper.

The Houthis “should be under no misunderstanding: we are committed to holding malign actors accountable for unlawful seizures and attacks”.

Image Credit: AP

Shapps described the situation in the region as “a test for the international community” which had implications for other potentially contested waterways around the world.

“If we do not protect the Red Sea, it risks emboldening those looking to threaten elsewhere including in the South China Sea and Crimea,” he added.

“We need to stand firm with our allies, stand firm for our beliefs and stand firm for innocent people caught up in these events.”

The Telegraph said London is drawing up plans with Washington for potential military strikes against the Houthis, and reported that a joint statement giving the militants a final warning to stop their attacks was imminent.

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said on Sunday he had spoken to his Iranian counterpart Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian about the Red Sea tensions.

“I made clear that Iran shares responsibility for preventing these attacks,” he said on social media, noting Tehran’s “long-standing support” for the Houthis.

Entry point

The Red Sea is the entry point for ships using the Suez Canal, which handles about 12% of global trade and vital for the movement of goods between Asia and Europe.

The United States launched Operation Prosperity Guardian on December 19, saying more than 20 countries had agreed to participate in the efforts to safeguard ships in Red Sea waters near Yemen.

Maersk, one of the world’s top cargo shippers, said on December 24 it would resume sailing through the Red Sea. However, attacks have continued and US allies have proven reluctant to commit to the coalition, with nearly half not declaring their presence publicly.

The botched Houthi boarding operation was the second attack on the Maersk Hangzhou in as many days. The ship, which is carrying 14,000 containers en route from Singapore, was on Saturday hit by a missile about 55 nautical miles southwest of Al Hodeidah, Yemen.

The shipping company added that the crew of the Maersk Hangzhou crew was safe and there was no indication of fire onboard the vessel, which continued its journey north toward the Suez Canal.

White House national security spokesperson John Kirby declined to say what options the US is considering when asked on ABC’s “Good Morning America” if Washington would consider a preemptive strike on the Houthis.

“We have made it clear publicly to the Houthis, we’ve made it clear privately to our allies and partners in the region, that we take these threats seriously.”